Utah Scouting will shrink and change with the exit of the LDS Church, but supporters say it will survive

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Brody Cook, 6, left, and his brother Landon, 8, talk about some of their merit badges and various aspects of their scout uniforms following a recent Cub Scout activity in Draper. The cook family previously participated in a scout pack sponsored by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, but elected to continue with the Scouting program at a different location after the church announced it will end its decades-long partnership with the Scouting organization.

Draper • In early October, Dave Cook accompanied three of his four sons to Cub Scout meetings, where they planted seeds, talked about emergency phone numbers and ran a teamwork-building relay race.

But a highlight for the boys came after those activities, when they made their way to a game room in the basement of Corner Canyon Church and played Super Smash Bros. on the Nintendo.

“They’re super jazzed about this,” Cook said. “We have to pull them away during Scouts.”

The Cook children — 6-year-old Brody, 8-year-old Landon and 10-year-old Tristan — and their father are recent additions to Corner Canyon’s Scouting programs, but not to Scouting itself. After their faith — The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — announced it would end its decadeslong partnership with the Boy Scouts of America, Cook went looking for other Scouting options in the Draper area and ultimately selected a nondenominational program near his home.

The Cooks are in the minority among Latter-day Saint Scouting families. When the church formally severs ties with the Boy Scouts of America at year’s end — replacing it with an internally developed program for youths — the number of Scouts in and around Utah is expected to drop precipitously.

That impending hit has added to speculation of bankruptcy at a time when the Boys Scouts of America faces costly lawsuits from a host of alleged child abuse victims, declining participation nationwide and lingering fallout from a series of controversial changes to its membership rules.

State Scouting officials say they plan to adapt by shrinking their bureaucratic footprint and widening access to their camping facilities for outside groups. And many former Scouts say they’re optimistic about the organization’s future, forecasting a leaner, better-organized and more rewarding experience for the families who choose to remain in, return to, or experience Scouting for the first time.

“Definitely, it’s going to be harder for the Scouting organization, because they’re going to lose a lot of funding,” Cook said of the LDS Church’s exit. “But I think those who stay in Scouting will have a better experience.”

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Landon Cook, 8, recites the Scout Law, which includes 12 goals for every Scout, as he is joined by his brother Brody, 6, and his dad David following a Cub Scout activity on Tuesday, Oct. 1, 2019, at Corner Canyon Church in Draper. The Cook family previously participated in a Scout pack sponsored by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. It elected to continue with the Scouting program at a different location after the church announced it will end its decadeslong partnership with the Scouting organization.

Asked what was different about Scouts at Corner Canyon Church, Landon Cook answered simply “we do more.” One example: His 6-year-old brother is what is known as a Tiger Scout, a rank that Landon and Tristan Cook never experienced because LDS Church-sponsored Scouts traditionally begin the program at age 8.

“I miss my old troop,” Landon said. “But I made new friends.”

And when asked if he knew the Scout Law, Landon smartly snapped to attention — with some encouragement from his father — and lifted his right arm into the air with two fingers raised in the Cub Scout Sign.

“A Scout is trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean and reverent,” he said, without missing a beat.

[Editor’s note • Each of the men quoted in this article, as well as the article’s author, previously achieved the rank of Eagle Scout.]

A Scout is trustworthy?

The Boy Scouts of America faces a torrent of litigation related to allegations of sexual abuse and other inappropriate behavior inflicted on young boys during their time in the organization.

Lawyers representing the alleged victims claim to have uncovered hundreds of potential cases, and national reporting on the topic describes a staggering amount of purported wrongdoing in the Scouting ranks dating back, in some instances, multiple decades.

In August, Michael Johnson, Scouting’s National Youth Protection director, issued a statement saying he shares the concerns of those who have heard the stories of abuse and that he respects the courage demonstrated by alleged victims in speaking out.

“Sadly, there have been times when individuals targeted youth in our organization and took advantage of our programs in order to harm children,” Johnson said. “This infuriates me and our entire organization. We are heartbroken for victims and apologize to anyone who was harmed during their time in Scouting. We believe victims, we support survivors, and we encourage them to come forward.”

Dave Cook has followed the news around Scouting, and he worries about the impact of the alleged abuse to the organization, and to the victims themselves.

“It’s just a sad situation for all involved,” he said. "Certainly for those who were abused, I think it’s terrible. And, for Scouting as a whole, I think it’s sad.”

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Scouts gather for various activities at Corner Canyon Church in Draper on Tuesday, Oct. 1, 2019.

But he said he’s encouraged by changes the Boy Scouts have made and that he’s not concerned about the safety of his children. The stories of abuse and lawsuits have brought the issue front and center, he said, and he intends to participate alongside his sons.

“Everybody is really aware of it," Cook said, “and there’s all these rules you have to follow."

Salt Lake City resident Aaron Torres said he was able to see the more professional, bureaucratic side of Scouting when he worked for the organization as a river guide at the Teton High Adventure Base in Wyoming.

The program has had a lot of problems in the past, Torres said, but he believes it is working to turn a corner.

“It seems like they’ve been actively improving that, especially over the last decade or so,” Torres said. “Things have gotten to the point where I feel like Scouting is doing a really good job of trying to make those improvements and cover that type of abuse.”

A Scout is friendly?

In May 2013, the Boy Scouts of America’s governing body voted to end its longstanding ban on gay members, opening Scouting to all boys, regardless of sexual orientation. Two years later, the organization dropped its prohibition of gay adult leaders.

Then, in 2017, the organization announced that girls would be able to participate in Cub Scouts and Boy Scouts — subsequently renamed Scouts BSA — adding to the already coed Venturing program for older youths.

The following year, the LDS Church announced its planned separation from Scouting.

“They don’t use the term ‘Boy Scout’ anymore, they just use ‘Scout’,” said Barry Johnson, a Latter-day Saint Scout leader and Idaho resident. “And I think that’s wrong. I think it’s OK for boys to have their own organization — there’s nothing demeaning or diminishing to girls about that — as should girls.”

Johnson said he objects to boys and girls sharing Scouting facilities, like camps, and he believes the inclusion of female members negatively impacts the traditional Boy Scout environment. He gave an example of his troop’s recent summer camp, during which the boys wanted to have a belching contest, and how his daughter had objected when he later told her about the experience.

“It would definitely change the opportunity to teach and to model good fatherhood and good male leadership,” Johnson said.

Johnson also objected to the inclusion of gay adults, saying he would not allow his children to participate under leaders who do not follow the Latter-day Saint law of chastity, which prohibits sexual activity outside of heterosexual marriage. He views his participation in Scouting as a byproduct of his Latter-day Saint membership, and he intends to stop participating in the organization when his church does also.

“I feel strongly that we’re not at liberty to change God’s laws," Johnson said. "And I expect that the adult leaders for my children will have committed to do that.”

A church spokesman declined to comment for this article. Apostle Ronald Rasband mentioned the separation during his remarks at the faith’s General Conference earlier this month.

“To the Scouting organization,” he said, “to the scores of men and women who have served diligently as Scout leaders, to the moms — real credit goes there — and to the young men who have participated in Scouting, we say, ‘Thank you'.”

Jacob Gibb, a Utah County resident, said the announcement of girl members was poorly executed, giving the impression of a struggling organization flailing for new recruits. But overall he’s happy that change was made, as well as the inclusion of gay Scouts.

“I was glad to see that sexual orientation wasn’t going to be a barrier to entry for anyone who wanted to participate,” he said.

(Francisco Kjolseth | Tribune file photo) Miriam Cook, an early adopter into Cub Scouts, spends time helping her older brother with his Eagle Scout project in the family garage in Tooele, Monday, May 15, 2018.

The Scouting organization, Gibb added, has to evolve if it’s going to stay relevant and continue attracting youths. And it would be difficult to make those changes, he said, if Scouting remained “tethered” to the LDS Church.

“It’s not as good of a match as it used to be for either of them,” Gibb said. “I think it will be great for Scouting to expand and diversify and give more people chances to have those great experiences.”

And while Gibb hopes the organization succeeds, he’s also content with his personal involvement ending when the LDS Church cuts its ties.

“Honestly,” Gibb said, “I’m glad that I don’t have to worry about getting called as a Scoutmaster in [an LDS] ward in the future.”

A Scout is cheerful?

Utah is covered by three regional Scouting councils: Trapper Trails, Great Salt Lake and Utah National Parks.

Last month, the Great Salt Lake Council laid off 21 employees, with other long-tenured employees offered incentives to retire.

“Our priority is to provide the best possible Scouting experience for the youth in our programs," said Kent Downing, the council’s interim Scout executive. "We are currently reevaluating our facilities and resources needs to ensure we are in a strong position to continue delivering our programs in a sustainable way that best meets the needs of the members and communities we serve.”

Allen Endicott, Scout executive for the Trapper Trails Council, said his chapter has similarly been “right-sizing” its staff in anticipation of a drop in membership, which stands at roughly 48,000 Scouts.

“A year from now, if things go as well as I hope they go, we’re hoping we’ll be in the 5,000 range,” Endicott said. “When you lose one significant charter partner, it’s kind of a change and a rebuilding time.”

Endicott is optimistic that participation will rebound. He said Trapper Trails added 28 Scouting units this year, and that the departure of the LDS Church is mitigated somewhat by new and returning families who are interested in the program.

“It’s not just one group that’s joining Scouting in our area,” Endicott said. “It’s kind of an interesting collective of various individuals and families that are wanting to get involved.”

(Francisco Kjolseth | Tribune file photo) Boy Scout Troop 1994 posts the colors during the opening of the 2018 legislative session in the Senate at the Utah Capitol on Monday, Jan. 22, 2018.

Trapper Trails operates eight campgrounds, two of which are under long-term leases while the remaining six are owned by the council, Endicott said. With so many fewer Scouts, Endicott said the council plans to retain its facilities, while making them available during additional times of the year to outside reservations from families, and church and community groups.

"Our council has some tremendous camping properties, from Camp Loll up near Yellowstone Park to Camp Hunt on Bear Lake,” Endicott said. “We think we have opportunities to not only serve our Scouts, but to serve families and other organizations who would like to take advantage of the properties that we have.”

With the clock running down on LDS Church-sponsored Scouting units, many of the men interviewed by The Tribune described a feeling of diminishing returns for their local groups. Some with younger children had opted not to buy the iconic Scouting uniform and other materials, seeing them as unnecessary in the long term.

But Torres said he took his troop to Bear Lake’s Camp Hunt this summer, and he complimented the staff on working as if nothing has changed and offering one of the best camp experiences he’s ever had.

“It’s not shutting down,” Torres said. “They’re still figuring out ways to keep it going.”

He said there’s no doubt that Utah’s Scouting programs will be impacted, heavily, by the loss of the LDS Church. But he said Utahns may be overestimating how significant a shift is coming for the organization as a whole.

“It’s definitely a wound to the national Boy Scouts of America,” Torres said. “But it’s not fatal by any means.”

A Scout is reverent?

For Mike Mower, deputy chief of staff to Utah Gov. Gary Herbert, the best part of Scouting is the diversity of experiences it offers to youths. He grew up in the town of Ferron and said the Boy Scouts gave him a window to the world he would have otherwise lacked.

While his children were more interested in the camping and outdoor recreation side of Scouting, Mower said he liked earning merit badges on topics from citizenship to agronomy.

"Scouting provides a great way to learn a lot about a lot of things,” he said.

Mower suggested that Scouting faces many of the same challenges as other fraternal organizations. People, he said, are more focused on social media today than they are on socializing.

But he said he’d recommend Scouting to anyone who is interested, and he expects it to continue serving an important role for thousands of Utah youths, even if it takes a few years to regain its footing.

“It’s got terrific principles — duty to God, family and country," Mower said. "What more could you ask for in an organization that your children are involved with?”

Others say Scouting has failed to keep up with the times and question the appropriateness of its traditions.

The Boy Scouts of America has encountered criticism for its use of Native American imagery, and Brian King — a Utah native who now lives in Oklahoma — said he has frequently been made uncomfortable with Scouting’s depictions of indigenous peoples and customs.

In one instance, King said he was a den leader when another adult performed a faux ceremony in which he removed his shirt, painted his chest and face, shot a flaming arrow into the sky and then invited the Scouts to drink what he said was bear’s blood from a gourd.

“I learned later that he was just drinking V8,” King said. “I think it was at that point when I really started to question Scouting.”

Despite experiences like that one, King said, some of the greatest lessons he learned as a child came from his time as a Scout.

“I was taught to leave your campsite better than when you found it," he said, "and this has really become a life mantra for me.”

Asked what he remembers from his Scouting experience, Gibb mentioned the adult leaders in his Latter-day Saint ward, or congregation, who were knowledgeable about the outdoors and enjoyed teaching the young men. Gibb’s father was also his Scoutmaster for a time, and he remembers those campouts and how Scouting groups would work together through challenges like bad weather.

“They were things that were solvable and manageable, and it gave me confidence later on," Gibb said. “It was a good first step into getting that independence for myself.”

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) David Cook and his sons Landon, Brody and Tristan, from left, play video games after a Cub Scout activity on Tuesday, Oct. 1, 2019, at Corner Canyon Church in Draper. The Cook family previously participated in a Scout pack sponsored by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, but elected to continue with the Scouting program at a different location after the church announced it will end its decadeslong partnership with the Scouting organization.

Sitting with his boys in the Corner Canyon Church game room, Dave Cook waxed nostalgic about his own Scouting experience. He was one of eight sons — and one of six who earned the lauded rank of Eagle Scout — of a father who encouraged Scouting and who, long ago, accompanied Cook on his first 50-mile hike through Pennsylvania along the Appalachian Trail.

“I still remember that week I had, he and I,” Cook said. “It was a highlight of my life. Hopefully, I’ll be able to do that.”

Cook said he expects the Boy Scouts of America to continue operating, even if the organization goes through some form of bankruptcy or corporate restructuring. He acknowledged that Scouting competes for his and his family’s time, but he said that it’s also something he enjoys and that he and his children are able to do together.

“For us," Cook said, “we’ll just continue on as if it’s going forever.”