Philmont closure is latest fight for Boy Scouts


Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

Hundreds of tents remain empty where normally thousands of Scouts would arrive and depart from the Philmont Scout Ranch. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Normally Philmont Scout Ranch would be filled with thousands of teenagers, dozens of campfires and songs echoing off the old rock walls.

But in these freak times, the tent pads are empty and the trails remain untouched except by crews putting out small bushfires.

Owned by the Boy Scouts of America, Philmont is the largest and most prestigious camp of its kind. In 2019, more than 21,000 people across the country came to rural northern New Mexico to backpack the 300 miles of trails dotted across the Colfax County landscape.

From its inception, however, the COVID-19 pandemic had threatened the camp’s summer operations, Philmont’s big moneymaker.

Philmont administrators developed a detailed 34-page plan outlining how camp operations would adapt during the pandemic to keep campers and staff safe. Campfires were called off, the mess hall would be closed, and troops would be further separated along the trail.

It would look drastically different from a typical summer at camp, but administrators agreed and tentatively scheduled programs to open on July 1.

However, the state Department of Health disagreed and rejected the camp plan – there was simply too much risk in letting thousands of people across the country gather in one place . On June 4, the camp announced that all 2020 summer programs would be canceled.

A sculpture of a boy scout overlooks an empty parking lot at Philmont Scout Ranch. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

“I wish there was more talk about it,” Philmont general manager Roger Hoyt said. “We’ve worked very hard to make sure we have the plans in front of the right people.”

The camp closure promises to have a negative impact on camp, local businesses and neighboring communities, and comes during one of the most turbulent times in Boy Scout history. For many outside observers, the future of Scouting’s crown jewel has never been so uncertain.

A generous donation

Ask people to describe the Philmont Scout Ranch and they’ll probably all use the same word: “massive.”

The camp spans 147,000 acres, not including thousands of additional acres loaned by the U.S. Forest Service for camp use. Incoming campers, some from featureless Midwest skylines or dense urban areas, arrive to see the towering Sangre de Cristo Mountains. They spend the next two weeks covering around 70 miles on around 20 different trails.

It is the largest camp of this type in the world.

In 1938 and 1941, Oklahoma oilman Waite Phillips donated several parcels of his favorite New Mexico ranch to the Boy Scouts, who later renamed the property Philmont in Phillips’ honor.

Since then, Philmont has become a premier destination for Boy Scouts and attracts thousands of visitors each year. As a result, camp operations are equally large, with around 1,300 seasonal workers hired each year from more than 2,000 applicants.

Steve Nelson, camping manager at the Philmont Scout Ranch, wears a bolo tie depicting Scouting’s founder Robert Baden-Powell. Summer programs at the ranch are canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Campground manager Steve Nelson speaks proudly of his first time in Philmont. He still has a picture of the experiment hanging on his desk from that time nearly 40 years ago.

“This experience made me realize that I could be a leader and overcome challenges,” Nelson said.

The drive to get this once-in-a-lifetime experience has brought millions of young boys through small town New Mexico over the years. As a result, local businesses have become dependent on the camp for most of their business.

Kevin Kempton, an Arizona designer, hangs historic photos in a room at the St. James Hotel in Cimarron. Hotel operations have been significantly impacted by the closing of the Philmont Scout Ranch for the summer. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

The St. James Hotel, a famed 148-year-old hotel in nearby Cimarron, depends on incoming scouts for nearly 80% of its total business, general manager Teri Caid said. The closure of the camp came as a surprise to many.

“We expected it to be reduced, but not completely eliminated,” Caid said.

In Cimarron, a small town of just over 1,000 inhabitants, the population is multiplied by 20 during the summer with the influx of travelers. As a result, many businesses live and die by Philmont.

“They struggle in the winter months to earn their money to survive in the summer,” Caid said.

In 2018, much of Philmont’s camping season was closed due to the Ute Park Fire, which burned 37,000 acres. After summer traffic ended, Cimarron’s only grocery store and several restaurants closed.

The grocery store has returned, but Caid expects many businesses won’t live to see another summer in Philmont.

“I believe everything else will close,” she said.

Ernie Bruhn, left, and Phoenix Russell, who both work at Russell’s One Stop in Cimarron, discuss operations. Many Cimarron businesses are expected to struggle with the Philmont Scout Ranch closing for the summer. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Phoenix Russell, whose family operates several businesses in and around Cimarron, says nearly half of its customers go to Philmont.

“It’s a lot of people that there are no longer in the city,” he said.

Russell said he thinks Cimarron needs to adapt and come up with something else so they aren’t so reliant on Philmont for their customers.

The financial implications extend throughout Colfax County.

Many campers travel to Philmont by train and get off at Raton before taking a bus to camp. Raton City Manager Steve Berry said foot traffic generated by rail travelers is a big part of the city’s economy.

“It’s an important part of our summer travel season,” he said.

Raton has already suffered financial difficulties following the decline of its coal and rail freight industries. Berry said those experiences softened the shock of Philmont’s closure.

“We’re a little jaded about it and what the potential loss will be,” he said.

Amtrak, whose Southwest Chief line runs through Raton, recently threatened to remove the stop from the small town, a move residents said would decimate Raton’s economic life. Berry worries that falling Amtrak revenue and reduced traffic from scouts going to Philmont could reignite those conversations.

He also said the closure of Philmont this summer and the closure of the Ute Park fire in 2018 means city officials are worried about the future of the camp.

“We are concerned about the long-term viability of Philmont,” he said. “It’s possible they won’t resume operations at all.”

“Strongest asset”

Hoyt disagrees that Philmont’s future is in jeopardy. He said the position the camp holds in the Boy Scouts of America will keep it afloat for years to come.

“It’s probably the strongest asset we have when it comes to the outdoor classroom and the Boy Scouts of America mission,” he said.

The shutdown, however, is the latest in a series of troubling developments for Philmont and the BSA.

The Ute Park Fire burned much of the camp property and had a significant impact on revenue that summer.

And in March 2019, months before a record influx of visitors for Philmont, the BSA mortgaged the property to JPMorgan Chase to secure up to $450 million in debt. Many Philmont officials did not learn of the mortgage until several months later.

The Boy Scouts have also struggled with rapidly declining membership numbers, down more than 20% in the past seven years, as well as dozens of lawsuits after years of sexual abuse cases.

Then, in February, the BSA filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in the United States District Court in Delaware, promising to set up a fund to pay victims and families.

In order to raise money for the fund, the BSA will have to sell some of its assets. Those assets include millions of dollars in assets, like Philmont, though it’s unclear if the camp will need to be sold at some point.

Deena Buchanan, an Albuquerque-based bankruptcy attorney, said courts will sometimes let organizations retain income-generating assets.

She also said the Boy Scouts had far more assets than liabilities, an unusual occurrence for this type of bankruptcy. She, like many bankruptcy critics, sees the filing as an attempt by the Boy Scouts to reduce the number of victim claims.

“From what I’ve read it seems like it’s an attempt to cap their responsibilities and that’s really unfortunate,” she said.

The Boy Scouts have denied filing a request to reduce the number of claims, but the victims now have until November 16 to file their case.

Hoyt said he does not expect the mortgage and bankruptcy to hamper operations, although the bankruptcy will impact their ability to finance capital projects, which will become a necessity with a record of 28,000 scouts expected next summer.

“If this is how we operate for the next five years – which it won’t – that could be a problem,” he said, adding that they will rely on donors for some projects this year. . “It’s really a short-term problem.”

According to the Boy Scout’s Chapter 11 plan, Philmont has a balance of over $40 million. Hoyt said any revenue generally goes to capital projects.

James Stang, a lead lawyer for the victims in the bankruptcy case, told the Journal the property could be sold if its value exceeded the mortgage. He said he expects the value to be discussed in court at a later date.

Hoyt, however, said he was not worried about the camp’s long-term future as he was only focused on next summer.

“People want to see Philmont succeed for many years,” he said. “I don’t spend a lot of time worrying about the hypothetical.”


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