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A long slide

Years of decline led the Boy Scouts of America to mortgage its biggest property in 2019

A long slide

Boy Scouts at a solemn Memorial Day event at Los Angeles National Cemetery in California (Joe Sohm/Visions of America/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

Mark Stinnett has Philmont Scout Ranch in his blood. 

As a youth, he became an Eagle Scout and member of the staff of Philmont, Scouting’s premier high adventure camp in New Mexico. While on staff, he met the young woman, Carol, who would become his wife. After graduating from college and law school, he became president of the Philmont Staff Association, an alumni group made up of thousands of former Philmont staff members. He took a position on Philmont’s Ranch Committee, an oversight board charged with making strategic decisions for the ranch.

But last year, when the Boy Scouts of America (BSA) mortgaged Philmont, using the 220-square-mile ranch to secure up to $450 million in loans, Stinnett had enough.

In a forceful letter that eventually made its way into an Associated Press story, Stinnett resigned from the ranch committee, saying the mortgaging of Philmont was a “betrayal.”

Stinnett is not alone in his disappointment with the Boy Scouts. Since 2012, the year before the BSA made a decision to allow gay boys into Scout troops, membership had fallen by 16 percent. That drop translates to more than a half-million Scouts and their leaders. The Scouts have spent more money than they’ve taken in for five of the past six years. The deficit for these years amounts to nearly $180 million. BSA’s national leadership announced at the end of 2018 it was considering bankruptcy.

David Gillson

Philmont Scout Ranch (David Gillson)

The mortgage agreement between BSA and JPMorgan Chase & Co. puts Philmont up as collateral against almost $272 million in loans, lines of credit, and bonds—some of which were originally issued as early as 2010. The document caps the total amount of debt secured by Philmont at $450 million.

“Healthy nonprofits seek to pay off debt, not incur more debt,” Calvin Edwards said when WORLD asked him to analyze the mortgage agreement. Edwards runs a firm that since 2001 scrutinizes nonprofits and advises them on financial operations. Some have defended the mortgage as a normal way to secure revolving lines of credit. Edwards disagrees: “This is peculiar. It’s desperate measures.” 

This state of affairs is a huge decline for the century-old organization that was once one of the pillars of what sociologists call “civil society,” organizations that teach democracy, leadership, and civic engagement. As of 1970, the Scouting movement had more than 6 million members in the United States. Throughout the 20th century, more than 100 million men and boys (and many females as well) have raised their right hands and recited the Scout Oath, which begins, “On my honor, I will do my best to do my duty to God and my country.” 

It all leads to the question: “What happened?”

FOR A CENTURY, Scouting was one of the great institutions of American civil society. Alvin Townley has written two books on Scouting. He told WORLD that Scouting was second only to the military in its ability “to bring together so many from so many different backgrounds over such a long period of time. Scouting has played a unique role in American culture. It is part of the fabric of American life.” 

It’s also had a close relationship to the churches of America.

All Scout units—more than 100,000 of them—have chartered organizations, which are the “owners and operators” of these units, not just by providing meeting space, but by approving the units’ leaders. More than 70 percent of these chartered organizations are churches. Until Jan. 1, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints used the Boy Scouts as its primary youth program for most of the BSA’s history, and had more than 37,000 units and 430,000 youths in the program. But as recently as 2013, United Methodist, Roman Catholic, Presbyterian, Lutheran, and Southern Baptist churches combined for nearly 30,000 units and nearly 1 million Scouts. 

Scouting’s highest rank, the Eagle, has become a widely recognized mark of achievement for more than 2 million young men. Famous Eagle Scouts include President Gerald Ford, Sen. Mike Lee, former Attorney General Jeff Sessions, Mike Rowe (host of TV’s Dirty Jobs), and Walmart founder Sam Walton.

Hans Gutknecht/Digital First Media/Los Angeles Daily News via Getty Images

Boy Scouts march in 1967 to honor a decorated veteran in Galax, Va. (Hans Gutknecht/Digital First Media/Los Angeles Daily News via Getty Images)

That so many political, business, and civic leaders are former Scouts is no accident, Townley said. “Producing leaders and developing character are explicit goals of the Scouting program,” he said. “The Boy Scouts provided millions of boys and men their first experiences with leadership.” They also learn about democracy and cooperation: Scouts elect their own leaders, and patrols and troops plan cookouts, hikes, and camping trips as a group. Every Scout must perform service projects, and Eagle Scouts must plan and lead a major project that is “helpful to any religious institution, any school, or your community.” Eagle projects total more than 9 million hours per year. That’s the equivalent of 4,500 people working full time, every year.

Scouting is second only to the military in its ability ‘to bring together so many from so many different backgrounds over such a long period of time.’ —Alvin Townley

In recent decades, Scouting has been a victim of culture wars. But other factors have also played a role in its decline.

America is much more urban and technological today than in Scouting’s heyday. By the 1980s, learning how to tie knots and build fires had become less attractive to boys than video games and year-round sports programs. Instead of promoting outdoor adventure as an alternative to urban life, the Scout Handbooks of the ’70s and ’80s taught boys to read a bus schedule. The Scout motto—“Be Prepared”—stopped meaning always having your multipurpose Scout knife with you. Instead it meant having a dime in your pocket for the pay phones then ubiquitous in urban areas.

Jeff Gritchen/Orange County Register via Getty Images

Boy Scouts in the 4th of July Parade in Huntington Beach, Calif. (Jeff Gritchen/Orange County Register via Getty Images)

Membership in Scouting fell even as the population grew. Then, in the late ’90s, Boy Scouts found themselves on the front lines of cultural battles when they became the target of atheist and homosexual groups.

In the 1990s, an openly homosexual man, James Dale, sued the Boy Scouts in order to be an adult leader. The case went to the U.S. Supreme Court, where the Boy Scouts won in 2000. But this case and others, despite the Scouts’ legal victories, cost millions in legal fees. 

While homosexual groups fought the Boy Scouts from one direction, atheist groups advanced from another. Beginning in 1981, the Scouts held their quadrennial National Scout Jamboree at Fort A.P. Hill in Virginia. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) argued that the Scouts’ use of the military facility amounted to a government subsidy. Because the Scouts require “duty to God,” the ACLU said government support amounted to an establishment of religion, a violation of the First Amendment.

The ACLU made a similar argument in 2004, prompting the U.S. Department of Defense to force more than 400 Scout units off military posts. Most of these units easily found other sponsoring organizations—often churches. But whether the Scouts won or lost—and, as in the Fort A.P. Hill case, they often won—the legal bills mounted. Slowly the Scouts lost their appetite for defending themselves. In 2004, Scout spokesman Bob Bork told WORLD, “[The ACLU is] like a dog with a bone. They’ve been gnawing on us for 30 years now. It isn’t cheap. Our lawyers aren’t working pro bono.”

‘[The ACLU is] like a dog with a bone. They’ve been gnawing on us for 30 years now. It isn’t cheap. Our lawyers aren’t working pro bono.’ —Bob Bork

In part to keep from fighting the ACLU at every jamboree, in 2009 the Scouts bought a 10,600-acre tract in West Virginia with the help of a $50 million gift from Stephen Bechtel, an Eagle Scout whose grandfather founded the Bechtel Corp., the world’s largest engineering firm. Despite Bechtel’s gift—and others that totaled at least $85 million—the development of Summit Bechtel Reserve was soon over budget. A project originally estimated to cost $150 million ballooned to more than $500 million, forcing the Scouts to take on debt to keep construction on schedule.

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Summit Bechtel Reserve (Facebook)

Taking on so much debt may have seemed reasonable as recently as 2007, when the assets of the Boy Scouts approached $1 billion and Scouts, though a not-for-profit organization, had financial surpluses that in some years topped $40 million. But because of the Great Recession, the Scouts’ investment portfolio lost more than $173 million in 2008 alone. By 2011, the financial situation of the Scouts had deteriorated dramatically. With the losses of the past six years, the situation has become even more dire.

Elaine Thompson/AP

Cub Scouts and Boy Scouts march in the 41st annual Pride Parade in Seattle. (Elaine Thompson/AP)

But the Scouts can’t blame James Dale, atheist groups, or the ACLU for its most recent, self-inflicted wounds. A 2013 decision to allow homosexual boys to participate in the program accelerated the membership drop. In 2015, others left or considered leaving after BSA’s leadership took the next step and began allowing gay adult leaders. The BSA began accepting transgender youth in 2017. 

This drop in membership contributed to a flood of red ink in the organization’s finances, leading to consideration of bankruptcy and in 2019 the Philmont mortgage. MinistryWatch and WORLD broke the story about the mortgage in November. The mortgage, held by JPMorgan Chase, is “not to exceed” $450 million, much of which has been tapped out to pay off previous debts. 

It’s not hard to think of the Philmont mortgage as an act of desperation by an organization rapidly running out of options. In October the BSA made another such move. The Scouts announced a dramatic increase in membership fees, from $33 to $60, a price hike of 80 percent. The Scouts said the rising cost of insurance was a key reason the increase is necessary. In its last available tax return, BSA reported paying more than $66 million for insurance. “It’s astonishing,” Calvin Edwards said. “I’ve never seen anything like it. It’s always going to be higher for nonprofits dealing with children, but usually it’s nominal.”

This rise in the cost of insurance brings us to the most recent cause of Scouting’s decline: a pile of sexual abuse cases.

David Goldman/AP

Leo Tudela, who accuses a scoutmaster of sexually abusing him, holds a picture of himself as a youth. (David Goldman/AP)

In August, a group called Abused in Scouting filed a lawsuit in Philadelphia on behalf of a former Scout who claims he was abused by a Scout leader. The BSA has long kept a list of “ineligible volunteer files” that could include as many as 7,800 names. Victims’ advocates in lawsuits have pressured the Scouts to release the list, but the BSA has resisted, saying that to release a list of suspected abusers would violate their civil liberties and their rights to due process. 

The Philadelphia lawsuit says, “It is apparent that the Boy Scouts defendants continue to hide the true nature of their cover-up and the extent of the pedophilia epidemic within their organization.”

THAT BRINGS US BACK to Mark Stinnett, who in his letter of resignation from Philmont’s Ranch Committee wrote, “The first point of the Scout Law is ‘A Scout is trustworthy.’ I am distressed beyond words at learning that our leaders apparently have not been.”

Indeed, that breach of trust between the leadership of the Boy Scouts and the rank-and-file members may be the most severe break. Many former Scouts had enough back in 2013 and formed Trail Life USA, which recently held its first national conference.

“We’re here to honor the legacy of the Boy Scouts of America,” radio personality Bill Bunkley told a gathering of founders in 2013. “But now, quite frankly, we are called in a new direction.”

Six years later, the Christ-centered ministry has grown to 30,000 members.

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A photo from the Boy Scouts of America Facebook page (Facebook)

The BSA, on the other hand, has battened down its hatches. Staff reductions continue at the national headquarters in Irving, Texas. Both the director and the associate director of the National Eagle Scout Association have been laid off. The recent near-doubling in membership fees will likely result in more departures, on top of the loss of 400,000 Mormon scouts this month.

And the Scouts have all but stopped talking with the media. I made repeated requests for interviews for this story. The only response I received: “Earlier this year [2019], the Boy Scouts of America (BSA) renewed and revised certain credit facilities through a process approved by our National Executive Board.” 

The spokesperson added, “We will not be providing additional commentary.”

—with reporting by Michael Reneau

Warren Cole Smith

Warren Cole Smith

Warren is the host of WORLD Radio’s Listening In. He previously served as WORLD's vice president and associate publisher. He currently serves as president of MinistryWatch and has written or co-written several books, including Restoring All Things: God's Audacious Plan to Change the World Through Everyday People. Warren resides in Charlotte, N.C. Follow him on Twitter @WarrenColeSmith.