The Great Boy Scouts Land Sell-Off

Photo: Frederic Lewis/Getty Images

The Deer Lake Scout Reservation in Killingworth, Connecticut, was originally acquired by a local chapter of the Boy Scouts of America as a tract of farmland in the 1960s. Little has changed in the decades since: The 253-acre camp is an expanse of spectacular rock formations and immaculate waterfront where scouts ice climb, weekend hobbyists hike the trails, and birders watch for ospreys. It’s one of thousands of pristine woodland properties owned by local scouting chapters across the country, and it’s up for sale to the highest bidder.

When the Boy Scouts is in trouble, it tends to unload property. The organization has faced declining numbers for decades, but the child-sexual-abuse lawsuits representing more than 82,000 former scouts and expected to result in a $2.6 billion settlement signal something closer to an existential threat. At least $515 million of that settlement will be collectively contributed by local chapters, which is why so many of them have either recently sold or announced their intention to sell their camps.

The Connecticut Yankee Council, which owns the Deer Lake property and runs the local scouting chapter, has already paid its $2.6 million share of the settlement to the national organization. But it’s looking to make significant cash on the sale, rejecting two bids — one for $2.4 million — from conservation-minded groups who want to keep the land as it is in favor of a $4.6 million offer from Margaret Streicker, CEO of the New York development group Fortitude Capital. Local residents launched a fundraiser to “Save Deer Lake,” and local officials say they’re frustrated by a bidding process that privileges the Boy Scouts’ bottom line over the public good: “I am at my wit’s end with Yankee Council right now,” a town selectman told CT Insider this spring. Streicker has so far declined to elaborate on her plans for the property but said she sincerely hopes someone else can beat her offer.

These confrontations between conservationists and Boy Scouts chapters often involve opposing interpretations of decades-old deeds produced when early conservationists donated property to the Boy Scouts under specific terms — for instance, that the land remain a place for youth to appreciate the outdoors. A property on a lake in Belgrade, Maine — a town where the population doubles during the summer — went to a private family for an undisclosed sum under a purchase-and-sale agreement earlier this year despite a pending lawsuit from the attorney general and conservation advocates over the terms of the original deed. In Florida, locals are attempting to raise $1.1 million to buy a 60-acre camp on the Ocklawaha River recently put up for sale by the Boy Scouts.

Every day, the U.S. loses an estimated 6,000 acres of open space; the Boy Scouts of America owns a significant amount of exactly that type of land — the sort of mountainous countryside and undeveloped woodland that’s dwindling by the second. And as the great Boy Scouts land sell-off rolls on, it seems only crappy conservationists or benevolent developers might be able to keep it that way. How did a nonprofit now best known for its massive sexual-abuse scandal end up as the steward of so much vanishing, valuable, natural land? It took a century for the Boy Scouts to collect it. It’ll take far less time to lose.

Before the Boy Scouts was hit with abuse allegations that rivaled those of the Catholic Church, the organization had spent a century building influence. John F. Kennedy was a Boy Scout — as were Bill Clinton and George H. W. Bush. Early oil barons like Waite Phillips bestowed part of their fortunes onto the organization charged with turning the nation’s boys into upstanding men. According to court documents, the Boy Scouts currently hold assets worth more than $1 billion, including extensive oil and gas holdings and a fine-art collection with more than 50 Norman Rockwell paintings — including a painting of a Boy Scout giving a salute titled “I Will Do My Best.”

The Boy Scouts owns a lot of land. By some counts, the 200-odd local Boy Scouts chapters own 2,000 camps, which doesn’t include properties like the Philmont Scout Ranch — a massive tract of mountainous wilderness in the Rockies managed by the national organization. In New York State alone, chapters control 35,000 acres (much of it valuable lakefront property), making the organization’s cumulative footprint in the state larger than that of Disney World in Florida. Much of this land was donated by alumni of the organization or wealthy early conservationists like Virgil McCroskey and Harry Trexler — men who either inherited or built vast industrial fortunes at the turn of the 20th century, then gifted them to the Boy Scouts so that young men just like them might grow up with a respect for the backcountry and wild, undeveloped land. The Boy Scouts purchased some of its land on its own using funds raised by local chapters. Until recently, the organization was a safe philanthropic bet.

In 2020, facing thousands of individual lawsuits across the country, the Boy Scouts of America filed for bankruptcy, freezing pending cases and ensuring future litigation would run through the bankruptcy court. By the mandatory court deadline, more than 92,000 claims had been submitted from people who alleged sexual abuse as children by the organization’s adults over several decades. The monthlong trial ended in April; a bankruptcy judge, Laurie Silverstein, is currently reviewing the organization’s plan to set up a $2.7 billion compensation trust.

Through the process, the Boy Scouts’ property holdings became central to its plan to pay survivors: In 2019, as bankruptcy loomed, the national organization mortgaged the 140,000-acre Philmont Scout Ranch, the crown jewel of its holdings, to pay for anticipated costs. (In the years prior, likely in a similar effort to drum up cash, the ranch had begun renting “luxury deluxe tents” with upgraded bedding and towels.)

“Some of these properties are hot, super hot for developers,” says Timothy Kosnoff, an attorney representing more than 12,000 abuse victims involved in the Boy Scouts bankruptcy trial. “In some instances, you’ve got thousands of linear feet on the water in Long Island Sound.” According to Kosnoff, evidence submitted during the trial suggests the chapter-owned properties alone may be worth between $8 and $10 billion.

There’s Camp Parsons, a 165-acre former logging camp on Washington State’s Hood Canal, and Camp Flying Eagle on the banks of the Manatee River in Florida — an attractive riverfront property (where Spanish moss grows) that’s been eyed by developers since at least 2006. Until recently, there were a number of camps in the Poconos and on Puget Sound, where homes list for tens of millions of dollars, though many of those camps have already been sold. As Boy Scouts membership declined and lawsuits piled up over the last decade, the organization has gone to court to fight the terms of land-donation agreements, selling land to developers or logging it to raise cash.

A few years ago, a Las Vegas chapter listed its camp for $90 million through an agent who marketed the property as an “extraordinary opportunity for developers” and noted the “striking natural environment offering unequaled views.” Today, that property is operated by Bronco Off-Roadeo Nevada, where qualified Ford Bronco owners gather to talk shop and run custom off-road courses — provided their vehicle was built after 2021. Elsewhere, old Boy Scouts camps have been turned into water parks or sold as turnkey resorts that could generate upward of $12,000 per month. One, which featured backup generators and 12 cabins for staff, was sold to “a prominent Southern Utah family” said to use it as a family retreat. Another is set to become a gated community with 131 houses — each with a two-car garage.

Not all Boy Scouts camps are converted into off-road courses or private compounds for the filthy rich: Recently, in Maine, the local government matched donations through a conservation program to purchase a property a Boy Scouts chapter needed to unload to relieve its impending debt. Residents can still, for the time being, hike and camp on the 96 acres near Lewiston; then again, that property was appraised at just over $400,000. (The camp is located far from the ocean, where luxury developers don’t tend to hang around yet.)

In Connecticut, as in other states, a pair of local conservationists challenged the Boy Scouts’ legal standing to sell the land, alleging in a lawsuit that the sale contradicts the mission of the organization. Keith Ainsworth, the attorney who brought the suit, was an Eagle Scout many years ago, he says. Back then, “it was plain to me conservation is a big part of what scouts are about” — not the “maximization of revenue” he now sees.

Without intervention, however, it seems likely that all the valuable properties intended to instill the awe of nature in America’s kids will be transformed into grimmer sites of American leisure: amusement parks, vacation homes, survivalist compounds. “I think it takes an entity like the government to step in,” says Kosnoff, “or the properties will go to developers over time.”

By all accounts, the Boy Scouts of America plans to continue operations after bankruptcy; having carved up all that property the organization acquired over a century and promised to steward, it says it will soldier on. And unless something changes, it’ll probably do so without the camp on Deer Lake — land purchased with cash donated by people who believed in the importance of providing kids with access to open space.

The Great Boy Scouts Land Sell-Off