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"We work with the Utah councils talking about Leave No Trace and Tread Lightly," she said. "It really depends on what they are looking for from us."
By the numbers: Boy Scouts in Utah
In Utah’s three Boy Scout councils combined:
Number of youths served » 182,431
Total number of units » 15,400
Percent who are LDS » “More than 90 percent.”
Sources: Great Salt Lake, Trapper Trails and Utah National Parks councils
What about Girl Scouts?
The Girl Scouts in Utah have not had a death or serious injury accident since 1964, when a girl slipped on a rock, hit her head and died, said Utah Girl Scout CEO Cathleen Sparrow.
Girl Scouts in Utah have 8,440 Scouts and 3,500 volunteers statewide — far fewer than the Boy Scouts.
Sparrow said Girl Scout leaders must pass background and reference checks. They must attend a variety of training sessions about Girl Scout programs and safety. They have a 234-page “safety checkpoints” guide, with checklists they are to complete before various types of activities, supplemented by 220 pages of “volunteer essentials.”
Before any field trips, troops must file papers and receive permission from the council.
“We do that because we want to make sure we have the right amount of volunteers going with them,” Sparrow said, “and also that troop leaders passed background checks and that [they] have an understanding of what is in the safety activity checkpoints. The focus is on safety.”
Before troops can go camping overnight, they first must do daytime activities, day camps and night camps at a home before they can go to national parks or camps. Sparrow said Girl Scouts also stress “Leave No Trace.”
Unprepared for challenges » Lankford said the misconduct she’s seen includes Scouts who stoned a bear cub to death in Yosemite, leaders who had their youths flip middle fingers at one of her rangers "after he counseled them to put out an illegal fire," Scouts hacking trees with axes and "being extremely annoying and loud at backcountry campsites."
She acknowledges that park rangers "only become involved when Scouts are either in trouble or causing trouble, so the well-behaved, well-prepared Scouts fly under their radar. To a ranger, it may seem as if all Boy Scout troops are either ill-prepared or ill-mannered, because problem Scouts are the ones they see."
Her greater concern: Scout training and preparation often are not equal to challenges they choose to face.
"There are far too many tragic examples of this — fatalities in Zion, Grand Canyon, Yosemite and the Everglades," she said.
Fatalities during Boy Scout excursions involving Utahns include the deaths of two leaders in a water-filled slot canyon near the northern boundary of Zion National Park in 1993; the death of a 15-year-old Bountiful boy from heat exhaustion in the Grand Canyon in 1996; and one boy who died and another who was injured after a lightning strike during a trip to the Scofield Scout Camp in 2011. Their families sued the Boys Scouts of America, claiming the leaders were not properly trained in lightning protection.
Lankford was involved in the Grand Canyon response. "This was a Mormon group who planned an extreme hike to an extreme location during heat conditions," she said. "The hike was one that even rangers would not attempt that day except in case of an emergency."
The two Scout leaders were the first to become debilitated by the heat, she said, "leaving the boys to fend for themselves, setting a chain of events that ended in the death of a 15-year-old boy. Incidents like these break rangers’ hearts."
Why does she think it happens?
Some "feel compelled to take on the hardest hikes in the guidebook when leading a group of inexperienced boys in the wilderness," she believes. "My theory is that Scout leaders, perhaps seduced by the Scout mystique, greatly overestimate their own skill levels in the outdoors. I call it ‘fantasy thinking,’ and it can have fatal consequences."
She urges parents to "research the trip and the leaders’ experience level before allowing their child to go."
The Mormon connection » More than 90 percent of Utah Scouts and leaders are members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The LDS Church registers virtually all boys who are members in Scouts — regardless of interest — and appoints leaders for its troops.
Some Scouts and leaders may participate because they’re trying to be good church members, rather than because they have interest or experience in the outdoors.
Lankford said she has not seen any greater problems with Mormon Scout troops than with others — offering a backhanded compliment.
"Anecdotally speaking, Boy Scout leaders from other religious backgrounds seem just as ill-prepared," she said. "But I can see how that process [of appointing leaders] may increase the probability of groups being led by men who aren’t fit for the position."
The three councils insist LDS leaders and Scouts are "well-trained, enthusiastic and engaged."
The councils say they are pleased with training and participation by the LDS Church — which is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year in sponsoring Scout units — and see no problems caused by its practice of appointing leaders.
"The church’s ‘Scouting Handbook’ repeatedly emphasizes the importance of training, and church leaders strongly encourage their Scout leaders to participate in trainings," the joint statement said. " ... We thank the church for its commitment to our mission, including principles such as ‘Leave No Trace,’ and the immeasurable impact it has had on Utah’s youth."Next Page >
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