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As a Brigham Young University undergraduate in 1966, Larry Dean Olsen was promised $90 to teach primitive survival skills to fellow students.
Seventy-two people showed up the first night to learn fire and shelter building and other techniques for enduring the wilderness without modern gear. Surprised, his school bosses doubled his pay for the monthlong course.
Olsen soon was leading outings that lasted several days, and BYU deans began noticing changes in the students who went. Unexplained improvement in school performance and better manners at home pleased the students' parents.
So university officials hatched a plan with Olsen, who was still in his 20s and struggling to support a growing family that would eventually include 10 children. They developed 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 didn't know it at the time, but his work at BYU became the foundation for what is now a lucrative therapeutic industry that uses wilderness as a platform for addressing troubled teens' problems. Today, Utah's industry annually serves about 1,400 teens whose families drop an estimated $37 million a year on fees, not to mention several million on travel and escort services.
While no one tracks the numbers of teens attending wilderness camps nationally, industry observers believe Utah serves more children than any other state.
The 12 programs licensed in Utah include a Colorado-based business that brings teens across the state line, and a small ranch that focuses on horseback riding rather than wilderness.
Wilderness therapy has evolved considerably from Olsen's early experiments, but its core principle remains: Experiencing rugged nature on its own terms, stripped of modern conveniences and distractions, can have a transformative effect on a young life.
Programs now use primitive skills and hikes as metaphors for overcoming life's challenges; rely on doctorate-level therapists; and use self-expression, even yoga and didgeridoos, to help youth address their problems.
Gaining popularity - and a black eye:
After Olsen left BYU, he and others established the first wilderness therapy programs, such as Idaho's School for Urban and Wilderness Survival. In the 1970s, it charged a modest $500 for a 30-day outing.
The industry kept a low profile until the late 1980s, when a BYU alumnus Steve Cartisano established the Challenger Foundation in Escalante, and jacked fees to more than $10,000.
Challenger and its spin-offs embraced militaristic routines, such as forced marches led by minimum-wage staff. In programs in Utah, across the nation and in foreign countries, teens began dying - from falls, dehydration and untreated medical conditions - or enduring abuse. The industry grew notorious, a black eye that still haunts it.
Utah's first death occurred in 1990 at Summit Quest of St. George, started by former Challenger employees. Michelle Sutton, 15, of California, died while hiking with the program.
The state's second death came the same year - at Challenger, where Kristen Chase, 16, of Florida, died of heatstroke while hiking. Cartisano was acquitted of criminal charges but licensing officials banned him from Utah's industry.
In 1994, the state's third death occurred at North Star Expeditions of Escalante, also started by former Challenger employees. Aaron Bacon, 16, of Arizona, died of peritonitis and a perforated ulcer on a wilderness trek in Garfield County.
Olsen abhorred Challenger's approach and distanced himself from it and the boot-camp trend. "You don't treat them like maggots. You treat them like human beings," Olsen said.
Challenger and other Utah camps connected to the state's five deaths have closed. Olsen has tried to restore the industry's reputation with a new trade group, the National Association of Wilderness Therapy Camps.
"The goal was to identify the problems and propose solutions and establish standards," Olsen said. "That went a long way toward eliminating the boot camps."
Utah's detailed regulatory framework began emerging after the 1990 deaths. Now, its regulations are considered among the nation's strictest, setting standards for food and drink, hiking temperatures, the weight of backpacks and other issues.
The legal and redrock landscapes:
Utah's strong parental-rights laws make the state a magnet for the wilderness programs, which often treat teens from states such as California and Texas that accord less weight to parents' interests.
"In the West Coast states you have prohibitive laws. The more liberal climate in those states makes it harder for parents to place their children in programs against their will," said Brad Reedy, a co-founder of Utah's Second Nature wilderness programs.
But the biggest attraction of Utah is its compelling natural landscape with deserts, canyons and mountains on public land.
It was the canyon country of southeastern Utah that Olsen tapped when he ventured out with his first cohort of 26 flunking BYU students - 16 men and 10 women.
The inaugural run of Youth Leadership 480, known as Youth Rehabilitation through Outdoor Survival, covered 300 miles around San Juan canyon country in 26 days. Olsen had stashed provisions in his pickup truck parked at strategic locations that he still had to hike 20 to 30 miles to reach.
"It was an experience for me as well as the kids. They were there to get re-admitted to BYU. I was there to keep them alive," said the 69-year-old Olsen, now living in retirement outside Buhl, Idaho.
One student on the hike was Ezekiel Sanchez, a one-time migrant worker attending BYU on an arts scholarship. Olsen quickly tapped him to help run the hike after a chaperone faded.
Years later, after launching and running early wilderness programs in Montana and Idaho, Olsen teamed with Sanchez in 1988 to start the Anasazi Foundation, a leading wilderness therapy program in Arizona.
Olsen traces his own wilderness transformation to the childhood day he found an arrowhead while cleaning out his uncle's irrigation ditch. The somewhat defiant youth who had refused to learn to read was struck by the stone.
"It changed my life. I took it to school and my teacher gave me a book about the Indians who made that arrowhead. I took that book home and taught myself to read," he said. His imagination - and a new life passion - was sparked by "the fact that you could take that stone and make something so beautiful and efficient."