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After 'goblin toppling,' how prepared are Utah, Mormon Scouts?

Published November 8, 2013 3:33 pm

Outdoors • Some park rangers say troops are trouble, but Boy Scouts defend boys' training.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

In her 12 years as a ranger in Zion, Grand Canyon, Yosemite and Cape Hatteras national parks, Andrea Lankford says one thing always scared her.

"Whenever I saw a [Boy] Scout troop hiking down the trail, I'd cringe and say to myself, 'Oh boy, here comes trouble,' " said the former ranger, author of the book "Ranger Confidential: Living, Working and Dying in the National Parks."

"Park rangers have witnessed many appalling instances of misbehavior by Scouts," she told The Salt Lake Tribune. "But the worst of all is when the lack of proper leadership turns a Boy Scout outing into a tragedy. If parents knew what rangers knew, they would hesitate to let their boys go on extended Scout outings into wilderness areas with leaders who haven't demonstrated real outdoor experience."

Boy Scout training and rules again drew scrutiny last week after the Utah National Parks Council removed two leaders for pushing over a red rock "goblin" in Goblin Valley State Park and posting the video online.

Earlier this year, the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources was forced to kill a bear after Scouts ignored repeated warnings about safely storing food, drawing the bear into Hinckley Scout Ranch in the northern slope of the Uinta Mountains. Weeks earlier, the camp director had shot and killed a bear that had wandered into camp and was eating a bag of candy bars left on a picnic table.

High-profile gaffes from past years include a Scout-caused fire in 2002 that burned 14,000 acres in the Uintas and ended up costing the Boy Scouts of America $6.5 million, and the Scouts in 2001 who chiseled out petrified dinosaur footprints at Red Fleet State Park and tossed them in the lake.

Numerous Scouts have become lost in Utah; some have died on outings.

But the case of the destroyed dinosaur tracks shows the flip side, as well — the three Boy Scouts who did the damage probably used a trail constructed as an Eagle Scout project.

While they agree that Scout groups can cause trouble or put themselves at risk, federal and state land managers recognize the muscle and sweat the young men put into making outdoor adventures more pleasant for others.

"Scout groups can be great or not so great. A lot of it depends on the leaders," said Goblin Valley State Park Manager Sarah Siefken. "We just had Scouts build a bridge on the trail, and they help us with other things, like invasive plant removal and searching for endangered cactus in the park."

Boy Scouts contributed about 25,000 hours — the typical annual average — of work at Utah State Parks in 2012, said Robin Watson, volunteer coordinator for the parks.

Seeking adventures outdoors • Utah's three Scout councils contend extreme misbehavior is rare and goes against training. They note that nearly 200,000 Scouts in Utah spend about a half-million nights camping a year.

The councils say their Scouts are taught how to treat the environment and note that, so far this year, Eagle Scout projects have provided about 150,000 service hours to benefit the outdoors.

"Outdoor adventure is an important part of the Scouting experience," the councils said in a joint written response to questions from The Salt Lake Tribune. "To prepare both our youth and adult members for outdoor activities, we teach and follow the principles of 'Leave No Trace.' "

The statements adds, "Our councils offer extensive training opportunities each year for our adult members."

While such goals and training are in all handbooks and offered regularly, including at monthly round tables, the training is not necessarily required to register and participate.

In contrast, training to protect youths from abuse is mandatory, as are criminal-background checks.

Last May, the Boy Scouts started issuing new cards aimed at helping leaders and Scouts analyze safety risks, using the acronym PAUSE — Pause before you start, Assess possible hazards, Understand how to proceed safely, Share your plan with others, Execute the activity safely.

Heeding that protocol may have avoided toppling the "goblin." The councils' statement said the Goblin Valley incident "does not in any way represent our members in Utah or beyond."

Kathy Jo Pollock, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Forest Service in Utah, said her agency accommodates requests by Boy Scout troops and other groups for presentations on how to properly enjoy natural resources but added the requests are not as common as they probably should be.

"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."

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.

In 2010, the Los Angeles Times researched Boy Scout deaths nationally in the preceding five years. It found 31 — four occurred in separate instances in Utah, or 13 percent of the national total.

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."

Boosting oversight • Lankford has several ideas for practices she'd like Boy Scouts to adopt.

"All backpacking outings should require no more than seven miles of hiking per day. More extreme outings can be done after successfully accomplishing or leading a novice-level hike," she said. "Have a backup activity planned in case the weather is bad or the trail is hazardous."

She also suggests a ratio of one adult for every three youths for overnight trips into the backcountry, and a "group size of no larger than eight, preferably smaller. Smaller groups are safer and less obtrusive to others."

Siefken agrees that the leader-to-youths ratio is important.

"We tend to see the best behavior where there are at least three or four leaders per dozen kids," she said. "Managing teenage kids is a difficult responsibility, and it seems like the group tends to do better with more supervision. They are definitely better behaved when they have well-trained adults leading them."

ldavidson@sltrib.combrettp@sltrib.com —

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."






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