KILLINGWORTH, Conn. (AP) — As the financially struggling Boy Scouts sell off a number of campgrounds, conservationists, government officials and others are scrambling to find ways to preserve them as open space.
A $2.6 billion proposed bankruptcy settlement designed to pay thousands of victims of child sexual abuse has added pressure to an organization beset by years of declining enrollment, and the Scouts and their local councils have been cashing in on their extensive holdings, including properties where some of the abuse took place. Developers have bought up some. Preservation groups hope others can be protected and some legislators have taken notice.
"I am emphasizing to my colleagues that there is a clear urgency here," said U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, a Connecticut Democrat who thinks there may be federal funds available to buy Scout properties. "We have no time to waste."
For over a century the Scouts and their local councils have acquired properties across the country where generations have learned to appreciate the outdoors through camping, swimming and canoeing.
In Blumenthal's state of Connecticut, the Scouts' Yankee Council is considering a $4.6 million offer from developers for a 252-acre property, Deer Lake, near Long Island Sound that offers camping, fishing, and hiking. The council has rejected offers from two conservation groups but is negotiating with one of them that offered a revised bid.
Sen. Blumenthal has said he's looking into the possible use of money from the National Park Service's Land and Water Conservation Fund to help in the purchase of the Connecticut camp and the other Boy Scout properties for sale across the nation. Individual states decide which projects to pay for with that money.
Other properties targeted for preservation include 96 acres of what was the Boy Scouts' Camp Barton, on the west shore of Cayuga Lake in New York's Finger Lakes region. It includes woodlands, streams, trails and a 75-foot (23-meter) waterfall.
"They are not making any more lakefront property," said Fred Bonn, regional director for the Finger Lakes State Parks system. "Access to the lake is challenging, both with its topography and what is owned privately."
Several local towns and New York state's Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation is working with the Baden-Powell Council of the Boy Scouts to try to preserve the land. A nearby 41-acre parcel already was sold by the Scouts to private interests.
It's unclear exactly how much land across the United States belongs to the Boy Scouts, partly because it is owned by local scout councils. But evidence in the bankruptcy trial indicated the local councils own close to 2,000 properties that could be worth between $8 billion and $10 billion, said Timothy Kosnoff, an attorney who represents more than 12,000 claimants in the bankruptcy.
The proposed bankruptcy settlement with Boys Scouts of America would have its more than 250 councils contribute at least $515 million in cash and property and a $100 million interest-bearing note. Kosnoff said the Scouts will need to sell much of their land to contribute to the national settlement or, if it fails, to pay for continuing legal battles.
"I can't predict how long it will take for all these properties to be liquidated, but I think it's inevitable," he said.
Some abuse victims have mixed feelings about the camps' sale.
Joe, a victim who did not want his last name used because his family is unaware of his experience, was abused by his scout master starting at the age of 8 in the 1970s at a Connecticut camp that was sold years ago to make way for housing on Candlewood Lake. He's not sure he wants people camping on land where scouts were once abused.
"I don't have those warm feelings about those places," he said. "It's almost like 'Poltergeist.' Do you want your house on land where those things happened? So, I don't know what to do with those places."
The Boy Scouts of America said in a statement that selling the camps may be necessary in some instances to compensate victims.
"Every decision must take into account the finances, viability of potential buyers, sustainability and meeting the obligations to provide the best service to youth within their respective council," the organization said.
Councils in states including Arizona, Connecticut, Illinois, Maine, Michigan, Missouri, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin have all recently sold or announced plans to sell camps.
Sen. Blumenthal said selling camps to developers goes against the tenants of an organization that is supposed to teach environmental stewardship.
"Unfortunately, local Boy Scout councils are selling to the highest bidder," he said. "So, I think it is a national challenge, but it goes to the core of what scouting means and the ethos and ethic of scouting, which they may be betraying."
In Michigan, a consolidation of local Boy Scout councils that began a decade ago has led to the sale of numerous properties, including Silver Trails, a 269-acre camp about 20 miles (32 kilometers) northwest of Port Huron. A group called the Thumb Land Conservancy tried to buy it in 2019, but lost out when the scouts sold it to a gravel-mining company.
"They've sold off, I think 15 camps statewide," said Bill Collins, the conservancy group's executive director and a former Boy Scout, who used to camp at Silver Trails. "So, people now have to drive sometimes a couple of hundred miles across the state to go to camp. Well, that makes most of day camp activities unfeasible and things like weekend camp outs much more of a chore for everyone involved."
In Maine, the Androscoggin Land Trust has a purchase agreement to buy the 95-acre Boy Scout Camp Gustin near Lewiston, which includes a large pond and a bog that is filled with wildlife. Aimee Dorval, the trust's executive director, said the state government's Land for Maine's Future program has agreed to chip in half of the $415,000 appraised value of the property. The rest is being raised through private donations.
The purchase would be part of the trust's larger effort to preserve about 1,000-acres of open space along the Androscoggin River near Lewiston, land that also has been targeted by developers. The trust plans to continue allowing Boy Scouts to use the land while opening it up to the larger community for camping and other activities.
Dorval said it's important for groups like hers to step up as these camps are put up for sale.
"There are accredited land trusts all across the nation that can take this on," she said. "I think it would be foolish if people stayed away from this because of the (Boy Scout abuse) controversy. To us, it's not about that. It is about conservation and about trying to preserve an area for youth and nature-based activities and historic scouting access."