Close this search box.

Scout’s Honor

In the last 30 years, the Boy Scouts has lost nearly half of its membership. Can the country’s largest outdoor organization evolve and explore new territory?

In July, 45,000 Boy Scouts converged on the Blue Ridge to celebrate the organization’s 100th anniversary. The centennial celebration included paratrooper demonstrations, a speech from Miss America, a parade through the nation’s capital, and one of the largest fireworks displays ever produced.

While the Scouts celebrated their first 100 years, they were also looking ahead to the next century. Faced with a sharp decline in Scout membership, Boy Scouts of America (BSA) has taken a hard look at its programs and charted a new vision for its future.

As obesity levels among our youth reach epidemic proportions, many are looking to the Scouts for a solution. But the century-old institution is plagued by controversy surrounding its exclusionary practices and stifled by a growing disconnect between the programs they offer and the activities kids today are seeking. At the precipice of the Scouts’ second century, can the Boy Scouts of America overcome stigma and bad public relations to revive their mission of introducing kids to a healthy lifestyle and the outdoors?

A Good Turn
In 1909, American newspaper publisher and millionaire adventurer William Boyce went for a walk in the woods in England. The fog was thick and Boyce got lost, only to be led back to safety by a young member of the Boy Scouts in Great Britain, an organization started just a couple of years earlier. After exiting the wilderness, Boyce tried to tip the young Scout, but the boy refused, saying it was simply his “good turn as a Scout.” Impressed with the boy’s character, Boyce exported Scouting across the pond and started the Boy Scouts of America a year later.

The purpose of the Scouts from the beginning was to create an incubator for boys to become men with a strong sense of leadership and values. Every meeting, Scouts recite the Scout Oath, “On my honor I will do my best to do my duty to God and my country and to obey the Scout Law; to help other people at all times; to keep myself physically strong, mentally awake, and morally straight.”  The Scouts was, and remains today, a character-building program, but the outdoors was the chosen classroom. To some extent, BSA was created to reintroduce a generation of boys to the skills of the outdoors. As England and America moved quickly from agricultural societies to industrialized nations during the Industrial Revolution, Boyce and his cohorts sought to preserve traditional skills, principles, and values that they saw slipping away from an entire generation.

From the beginning, Scout leaders sought to institutionalize the organization, forming strategic partnerships with churches, schools, and government agencies. As a result, BSA had a meteoric rise within American culture. By 1925, the Scouts had one million participants.

In their heyday during the 1970s, the Scouts boasted six million active youth and adult participants. For a time, it seemed as if every boy in America would become a Scout. Young men in khaki uniforms were everywhere, starting camp fires, doing good deeds.

And then, America, and its boys, changed. The Boy Scouts, it seems, didn’t. In the last 30 years, BSA has lost nearly half of its membership, down to 2.8 million youth participants today.

The largest outdoor club: Despite a 50 percent drop in membership since 1970, the Boy Scouts are still the country’s largest outdoor organization, with over three million scouts exploring the wild woods today.

Some critics of the Scouts believe the membership declines are a direct result of the Scouts’ discriminatory policies. The BSA prohibits atheists, agnostics, and homosexuals from assuming leadership roles. In 2005, a high-level employee of BSA was fired by the National Council after his sexual orientation was discovered. More recently, the lesbian mother of a Scout was prohibited from volunteering with the organization in Vermont. In 2004, the BSA adopted an official policy statement on the matter that reads, “Boy Scouts of America believes that homosexual conduct is inconsistent with the obligations in the Scout Oath and Scout Law to be morally straight and clean in thought, word, and deed.” The policy continues to detail how a child would be removed from the Scouts if he were to make his homosexuality known.

“Why refuse the eight year old with two moms? A kid at 13 realizes he’d rather look at Johnny than Jane and he gets thrown out of Scouts?” asks Howard Menzer, a former Scout and Scout Master who spent 54 years of his life involved in BSA. Today, Menzer runs Scouting For All, an organization attempting to put the Boy Scouts on the right track again. “They’re losing kids,” says Menzer. “I get letters all the time from parents who want their kids to have the Scout experience but don’t want to teach their kids to discriminate. The Scouts will blame their declines on 14 different things, but at the end of the day, it’s their policies. Discrimination doesn’t sit well with Americans.”

The practices have led to a series of legal actions, but the Supreme Court has upheld BSA’s right to limit its membership because it is a private organization that enjoys the freedom of association mandated by the Constitution. Whether or not BSA is in fact a private institution is a gray area that is continually debated. The Department of Defense spends millions of taxpayer dollars on the Scouts by providing real estate and resources during the National Jamboree held every four years while individual cities have subsidized local councils by leasing real estate to them for nominal fees.

Several of those municipalities have begun to sever their long-standing ties with the Boy Scouts because of their policies. The Los Angeles police department discontinued a junior deputy program with the Scouts. San Diego is attempting to discontinue the Scouts’ lease in Balboa Park. And the city of Philadelphia recently gave their local Scout council the option of adopting a statement of inclusion, or vacating a city building which had been leased to the Scouts for $1 a year. United Way has ceased much of its funding to the BSA, and a number of public school districts have attempted to bar the Scouts from using their classrooms.

There is often disagreement between the attitudes of local troops and the policies of the national council. Several troops have attempted to adopt inclusive statements of their own, only to be threatened with disbandment from the national council. As a result, many local troops with more progressive leaders simply choose to ignore the policy and carry on with the business of the outdoors, accepting all without adopting any formal statement.

The climb: To earn a climbing merit badge, Scouts must climb and rappel three different routes on a rock face.

While the exclusionary policies have been a public relations nightmare, the decline in Scout membership is more likely due to a greater number of youth activities. “When I was a kid, we could play little league baseball or we could join the Scouts. That was it. Today, there are so many other options for young men—everything from karate classes to video games,” says Dan Rogers, life-long Scout participant and manager of the Daniel Boone Scout Camp in Western North Carolina.

Other outdoor youth organizations have also seen a decrease in recent decades. Campfire USA and Outward Bound have also seen a decrease in participation in the past decade.

“There’s something happening with the demand on a kid’s time these days,” says Whitney Montgomery, director of North Carolina Outward Bound. “A lot of kids are in highly competitive sports programs that have 10-year-olds practicing three times a week and traveling on weekends for a series of games. It reduces the amount of time for a kid to play outside and develop as a whole individual.”

While the BSA has always pointed a finger at organized sports for being its toughest competition, Frank Reigelman, BSA’s National Director of Outdoor Programs thinks there’s something amiss with that equation.

“If all these kids are really playing soccer, then why is this generation obese?” Reigelman asks. “To a certain degree, our competition is organized sports, but the real competition I see is all plugged into the wall. My thought is there are a lot of kids in America today on the sidelines doing nothing.”

Video games, iPhones, TV…BSA and other outdoor programs are rapidly coming to terms with the fact that the almighty screen is what’s keeping kids from signing up to go for week-long backpacking trips. The BSA has begun to address this issue by embracing technology on an institutionalized level with Geocaching Merit Badges and Scout bloggers. The Cub Scouts introduced a Video Gaming Merit Badge last year. In 2011, the organization will unveil its Robotics Merit Badge. According to Reigelman, the technology tent at the National Jamboree this year—a mecca of video games, robotics, and computers—was by far the most popular activity. The idea is to use technology to engage kids in the outdoors and show them that there is a world beyond the screen.

“Once these kids are removed from the technology, they realize they don’t need that stimulation,” Reigelman says. “They realize that they can function quite well paddling a canoe in the boundary waters.”

Whitney Montgomery sees this realization first-hand in Outward Bound’s wilderness programs. “The average length of our wilderness programs is 14 days. These kids have to leave all of the electronics behind, and they’re actually freaked out about it at first. When they come off of their wilderness course though, they find those devices aren’t as important anymore. It’s an “aha” moment.”

High adventure: The Boy Scouts are focusing on whitewater paddling and rock climbing to attract more members and sharpen their outdoor image.

The Boy Scouts has been connecting kids with the outdoors for a century, introducing 112 million kids to the outdoors during the Scouts’ tenure. Staying “physically strong” is even a part of the Scout Oath. But it seems many Scouts have simply been giving that portion of the Oath hollow lip service. According to BSA’s internal Body Mass Index data collected at the 2010 National Jamboree, 41 percent of its youth participants are overweight or obese. That’s 10 percent more than the American average. And adult Scouts are struggling even more with their weight. An astounding 77.5 percent of the adult Scout participants at the National Jamboree were overweight or obese.

If the Scouts have been getting kids moving in the outdoors for 100 years, why are an unusually large percentage of them obese?

“Scouts are citizens of this country just like everyone else, so they face the same problems and have the same influences,” Reigelman says, adding that local troops have almost complete control over what activities they pursue.

In each Scout troop, kids are obligated to have one meeting a week, one outing a month, and one week-long camp experience each year. The meetings are usually fairly sedentary with oaths, planning discussions, and skills-based merit badge work. The monthly outing can be as adventurous as a three-day mountain biking trip, or as mundane as an over-night car camping trip at the local park. And the kids themselves predominantly choose which Merit Badges they’re going to pursue. While there are some incredibly adventurous badges to earn, there are far more that are very sedentary. Kids aren’t burning a lot of calories while earning their knot tying, pottery, or communications badges. The new video gaming and robotics badges don’t promise to be any more active either.

But BSA recognizes it’s falling short on the obesity epidemic and has aggressive plans to address the issue both within its organization and out. Within the next few years, BSA will create new health and fitness requirements for its youth and adult participants while providing the resources and incentives for each council to advocate for fitness. They also are creating a five-day health and adventure program template that local councils can use to build an annual camp for all youth within their region, whether the kids are Boy Scouts or not. These camps would be adventurous week-long programs where kids can develop new habits in health and fitness. BSA calls the plan to fight obesity “Scouting’s Gift to America.”

No private organization is more equipped to tackle America’s obesity problem than the Boy Scouts. They have 300 councils nationwide with dozens of troops in each council. The Scouts have camp properties in every state and put almost three million kids into the outdoors every year. Campfire USA—the second largest outdoor youth program—serves around 300,000 kids annually. Outward Bound has expanded its services to include urban centers, but they also fall far short of Boy Scouts’ accessibility and reach.

“Outward Bound is a great program,” says Dan Johnson, executive director of the Blue Ridge Council of the Boy Scouts in Roanoke, Va. “But a kid has to travel to participate in Outward Bound. The key to getting kids hooked on the outdoors is providing them with the opportunity. The Scouts are everywhere. There should be a troop right around the corner from just about every kid in America.”

The challenge is getting those kids around the corner to give the Scouts the time of day. After all the discrimination scandals, and competition from soccer teams and video screens, the biggest obstacle BSA faces is that many kids in 2010 think the Boy Scouts are lame.

“It all comes down to us doing the work that leads to kids saying ‘Scouting is cool.’ This is the place I want to be,” said Nathan Rosenburg, BSA’s vice president of marketing at the Scout’s annual national meeting. “We’re disconnected from the world of eight year olds, 11 year olds, 16 year olds. We have to find out what kids outside of our program have to say.”

BSA recently created a five-year plan that reads predominantly like a blueprint for making the century-old organization hip again. With an overall goal of increasing membership by 500,000 kids by 2015, BSA has sent researchers into the field to conduct an “attitude, awareness, and usage” study of the perceptions of Scouting among various segments of youth. They’ll use the data to launch a three-year media campaign to improve awareness and attitudes among youth toward the Scouts.

They’ve already revamped the Scout uniform with input from kids (now with wicking materials and iPod pockets), and there are plans to overhaul the existing programs to provide only the most exciting, appealing, and culturally relevant. During the previous 100 years, the Scouts has predominantly relied on schools and churches to reach kids, but in the next five years, it hopes to go beyond these traditional avenues and develop strategic partnerships with the National Football League, Major League Baseball, even video game makers, while also developing programs for government agencies that focus on outdoor adventure and wellness.

BSA undertook a similar makeover in 1972, when the organization decided to move away from outdoor programming in an attempt to stay “culturally relevant.” This most recent overhaul seems to be taking a completely different approach. Instead of moving away from the outdoors, the Scouts are recommitting themselves to it. And in the next five years, they’re going beyond the traditional camping and canoeing excursions to offer more adrenaline-based programs.  The fastest growing segment of the Boy Scouts is Venturing, which emphasizes “high adventures” like rock climbing and whitewater rafting.  The Daniel Boone Scout Camp near North Carolina’s Shining Rock Wilderness offers high adventures on 6,000-foot summits and has already sold out all available spots for next year. And at this year’s National Jamboree, kids waited hours to experience the mountain boarding station and to meet legendary snowboarder Shaun White.

“That’s what these kids want. They want the Shaun White experience,” says Renee Fairrer, BSA’s manager of public relations.

BSA has begun building a new High Adventure Camp in West Virginia called the Summit Bechtel Family National Reserve. It’s a 10,000-acre property adjacent to the New River Gorge National Recreation Area that is the manifestation of what the Boy Scouts hope to become in the next century. There are three existing High Adventure Camps within the Boy Scouts organization, all of which are wildly popular. Philmont, in New Mexico, focuses primarily on backpacking; the Northern Tier in Minnesota focuses on canoeing; and the Florida Sea Base is more ocean-oriented. The new Summit in West Virginia will focus on adrenaline, bringing world-class whitewater, rock climbing, and mountain biking into the equation.

“The Summit fits in with the progressive programs we’re designing to attract and retain members,” says Frank Reigelman. “It provides the momentum we need to jump start our movement for the next 100 years.”

In addition to being a High Adventure Camp, the Summit will also be the future home of the National Jamboree and the permanent home to the Scout Leadership and Training Center. The land, situated on a former strip mining site, will allow the Scouts to leverage the opportunities within the 100,000-acre New River Gorge National Recreation Area. Scout troops have already begun building a mountain bike trail that connects the Summit with the gorge, and next spring, Scout labor will help build an extensive trail system. Given the Summit’s proximity to big population zones, BSA expects to serve up to 100,000 kids each summer at the site.

If the Summit and the next generation of Boy Scouts are as successful as they are ambitious, the organization could have the single greatest impact on our youth’s health. BSA has certainly made a difference in the lives of the 112 million kids it has already reached, which is why Howard Menzer, president of Scouting for All, is so adamant the Scouts become a more inclusive organization.

“I love the Boy Scouts. It has the best program for children that I know of,” says Menzer. “It gave me leadership, independence, and it made me who I am today.” •

Best Reason to Join the Scouts

Situated on 16,500 acres, Blue Ridge Scout Reservation in Pulaski, Va., is the largest Boy Scout camp in the country. It offers rock climbing, mountain boarding, and even SCUBA. Scouts can backpack 50 miles on the property’s High Knoll Trail, paddle in the nearby New River Gorge, and hike the A.T.

Could You Earn This Merit Badge?

Think you’ve got mad outdoor skills? Chances are, you don’t know a quarter of what your typical 14-year-old Boy Scout knows about the Great Outdoors. For example, to earn a cycling merit badge, scouts must demonstrate how to repair and maintain all bike components, and then complete a 50-mile ride. Here are the requirements for a backpacking badge:
• Learn the symptoms and treatments for the common outdoor health concerns, including hypothermia, heat reactions, frostbite, dehydration, and snake bites.
• Explain five ways you can lessen the environmental impact on a trek using Leave No Trace Principles.
• Demonstrate two ways to treat water.
• Demonstrate your ability to navigate using a topo map and compass.
• Participate in three backpacking trips of at least three days and 15 miles each.
• Plan and execute a trek of at least five days and 30 miles, creating a daily itinerary and budget, and completing at least one service project along the way.

Share this post:

Discover more in the Blue Ridge: