How Utah became the birthplace of the once-lucrative wilderness therapy industry for ‘troubled teens’

An epiphany at Brigham Young University led to the spread of wilderness therapy programs. But deaths and abuse allegations have dogged the industry, which today is downsizing.

(Jim Urquhart | The Salt Lake Tribune) Teens and guides from Aspiro hike across the desert in Southern Utah in 2008 during an adventure therapy program for troubled teens.

Utah was the place where wilderness therapy got its start in the western United States, then thrived for years as it became a multimillion-dollar industry. Programs took struggling teens from across the country and hiked them through Utah’s hot deserts, with the promise to parents that their approach would fix a child’s behavioral issues, substance use problems or other mental health struggles.

But some teenagers have died in these wilderness camps, and many programs have been plagued by allegations of cruel punishment and abusive tactics. In recent years, negative accounts on social media and critical coverage in news media have affected bottom lines drastically.

Last year, nearly half of Utah’s wilderness camps closed. And the five programs that remain open appear to be enrolling far fewer young people than they are licensed to accept.

[Read More: Nearly half of Utah’s wilderness programs for ‘troubled teens’ closed in the last year. Here’s what’s happening.]

Here’s how wilderness camps rose up in Utah and helped spark the “troubled teen” industry — and the controversies that followed.

The start: Larry Dean Olsen

(Anasazi Foundation) Larry Dean Olsen, left, and Ezekiel Sanchez in the late 1960s. The two founded the wilderness program Anasazi Foundation after Olsen taught a wilderness survival course at Brigham Young University.

A Brigham Young University student from Idaho named Larry Dean Olsen is often cited as the founder of wilderness therapy camps in the United States. In the 1960s, he started leading outings with his classmates, teaching them how to build fires and shelters and other techniques they would need to endure being in the wilderness without modern camping equipment.

He soon began overseeing trips that were several days long. Deans at the university — which is operated by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — began to notice that students who went along were doing better in school and were well-mannered at home. So school officials worked with Olsen to develop a course that offered failing BYU students a shot at readmission if they learned survival skills and went on a monthlong backpacking trip through the Utah desert.

Olsen eventually left BYU, according to 2008 reporting from The Salt Lake Tribune, and worked with others to establish the first wilderness therapy programs in the West, such as the School for Urban and Wilderness Survival. That Idaho program charged $500 for a 30-day outing in the 1970s.

BYU officials said it’s been more than 30 years since the university offered any courses related to a wilderness survival program.

The industry continued to grow from there — but Olsen was quoted several times saying that he disagreed with the punitive, militaristic approach that many of his successors used.

“They’ve studied my technique and put on the skin,” he told the Los Angeles Times in 1995, “but have failed to get the heart of what we’re doing. Instead, they’ve gone to the boot camp idea and yelling in the face. For most kids, that doesn’t work.”

A lucrative industry: Steve Cartisano

(The Salt Lake Tribune) Steve Cartisano in an undated photograph.

While Olsen started wilderness therapy programs, it was another Utahn, Steve Cartisano, who turned the concept into a money-making business. Also a BYU alumnus, Cartisano took the ideals of wilderness therapy and jacked up the price. According to a 2008 Tribune article, he established the Challenger Foundation in Escalante and started charging parents more than $10,000 in fees.

Cartisano and other spinoffs embraced militaristic routines, like forcing young people to march in the desert. In Utah and elsewhere, teens began dying from dehydration, falls or heat exhaustion.

Cartisano was banned from working with child-treatment programs in Utah after 16-year-old Kristen Chase died of heatstroke in his Challenger program in June 1990. He was charged with negligent homicide in her death and with child abuse for how other students were treated, but a jury acquitted him.

Being banned in Utah didn’t stop Cartisano from continuing his “tough love” programs — he opened up shop in other places. He launched several unregulated teen programs in Hawaii, the U.S. Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico, Costa Rica and Samoa. All of these programs collapsed after claims of child abuse and financial improprieties became public, according to Tribune reporting from 2002.

Deaths in the desert

Cartisano’s program was not the only one who had teens die under its watch. Five teens died in Utah-based wilderness therapy programs over a 12-year period beginning in 1990:

  • Michelle Sutton died May 9, 1990. The 15-year-old California girl was enrolled in Summit Quest of St. George. She died from altitude sickness, dehydration and heat exhaustion while hiking south of St. George on the Arizona Strip on her sixth day in the program.

(Tribune archives) Michelle Sutton

  • Kristen Chase died June 27, 1990. The 16-year-old from Florida was enrolled in Cartisano’s Challenger program. She died of heatstroke three days after arriving at the program, while on a hike in Kane County.

(Tribune archives) Kristen Chase

  • Aaron Bacon died March 31, 1994. He was 16 years old and from Arizona. Bacon was enrolled in North Star Expeditions of Escalante, and had made it three weeks into the 63-day wilderness program before he died of peritonitis and a perforated ulcer while on the Hole-in-the-Rock trail in Garfield County.

  • Katie Lank died on Jan. 13, 2002. The 16-year-old Virginia girl was enrolled in Redrock Ranch Academy of St. George. She was hiking about 25 miles from Gunlock Reservoir in Washington County on Christmas Day in 2001 when she lost her footing in an area called the “naming caves,” and fell about 70 feet into a crevasse. She died three weeks later at a Las Vegas hospital.

(Tribune archives) Katie Lank

  • Ian August died July 13, 2002. He was 14 years old and from Texas. August was enrolled in Skyline Journey of Nephi, and was hiking in the Sawtooth Mountain area west of Delta when he could not hike any farther. He died of hyperthermia.

(August family) Ian August

Reforms continue

August was the third teenager to die from a heat illness in a Utah-based wilderness therapy program. And like most of the teens who perished before him — including Sutton, Bacon and Chase — he was judged by staff to be “faking it” as he began to die.

Following his 2002 death, Utah licensers began imposing stricter standards on wilderness programs. A 2003 Tribune article details the regulatory changes: Teens can’t hike when temperatures exceed 90 degrees, rescue responses were required to be better coordinated, staff were required to have working watches and thermometers and teens were required to have physical exams within 15 days of entering a wilderness program.

Programs also were required to address teen complaints by allowing them to promptly see a medical professional, regardless if field staff believe the youth is “faking.” Today, state rules also dictate the minimum amount of food and water that should be available to teenagers, how heavy their backpacks can be and what supplies programs are required to provide to young people.

There were few other reforms to Utah’s “troubled teen” industry until almost two decades later, in 2021. By that time, the industry had boomed to more than 100 programs — primarily residential treatment programs, but wilderness camps steadily maintained their numbers, too.

Legislators enacted more regulations in 2021 in response to increased scrutiny in recent years of youth treatment programs amid allegations of mistreatment and abuse. The legislation placed limits on use of restraints for all programs, and addressed the use of drugs and isolation rooms in residential centers.

It also earmarked more money to hire more state regulators, who now go into youth treatment programs more often. And it now requires programs to report when a staff member uses a physical restraint on a young person or puts them in seclusion.