Adirondack Boy Scout camps’ numbers in decline
By Tim Rowland
Once a rite of passage for kids from Western New York to Northern New Jersey, the Boy Scout Camps that dotted the Adirondacks are fading from the landscape, victims of financial and legal troubles, as well as a declining number of youngsters interested in scouting.
Largely out of sight and out of mind, even in the communities they inhabit, the camps have nevertheless protected forestland, enhanced wildlife connectivity and fostered a love for the Adirondacks in generations of youngsters.
“These properties play an important role not just in keeping the Adirondack forest connected but as places that connect young people to the land, and our hope is that they can continue to do both.” said Mary Thill, Communications Manager for the Adirondack Land Trust in Keene.
But the recent sale of the Sabattis Adventure Camp in Long Lake — a 1,250-acre tract on Bear Pond valued at $1.7 million — is indicative of a larger trend that has seen perhaps a half dozen of these camps at least test the market in the past 10 to 15 years.
“For us it was a really important part of the scouting experience,” said Gary Schwartz of Westfield, N.J., who attended the Sabattis Adventure Camp in Long Lake with his son. “That’s what we would always do in the summer, and we thought it was going to be there for a thousand years.”
So did campers at the Woodworth Lake Scout Reservation in Fulton County, where in 1975 upwards of 1,000 campers reveled in a pristine Adirondack setting, according to historian Bob Cudmore. By 1992 interest was waning, and in 2013 the camp was sold to a developer who won approval for a controversial large-scale subdivision where the old camp once sat.
Interest is growing
In 2015, the 6.7-square-mile Cedarlands Scout Reservation in Hamilton County was listed at $4.4 million. It includes vast woodlands and the 400-acre McRorie Lake. After dropping the price, the Leatherstocking Council took the property off the market to reassess, said Ray Eschenbach, executive director.
With vast woodlands and the 400-acre McRorie Lake, it is an important piece of an ecological puzzle that connects other protected lands, said Todd Waldron, a forester and former broker for Fountains Land Inc. in Lake George.
The tract was more difficult to sell, however, because during the Pataki administration the Scouts, in a deal brokered by The Nature Conservancy, had sold a recreational easement to the state for $2.3 million — much like taking cash out of a house. Waldron said the easement was lucrative at the time, but few customers were interested in an estate that for most of the year was open to the public.
In his experience, Waldron said most of these camps are not protected. Leatherstocking had an easier time in 2017, for example, selling unrestricted Camp Russell in Forestport — one of oldest scouting camps in the Adirondacks, founded more than a century ago.
Protected or not, there had been only occasional movement on these scouting reservations following the 2008 real estate crash and prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, Waldron said. Now, with open spaces at a premium, interest is rekindling.
Boy Scouts in financial trouble
That interest is now intersecting with the 2020 bankruptcy of the Boy Scouts of America precipitated by a tentative, $2.7 billion settlement of 92,000 sexual abuse claims.
According to news reports, BSA is scrambling for the wherewithal to pay the settlement by patching together insurance policies and selling assets, from summer camps to a valuable collection of Norman Rockwell paintings.
The BSA’s wide network of local councils are being required to cash in their assets as well to help with the settlement. Those councils included the Patriots Path Council of Cedar Knolls, N.J., which notified scouting parents in the fall that it was selling Sabattis Adventure Camp (not to be confused with the nearby Sabattis Scout Reservation).
“This decision (to sell Sabattis) was not easy and involved months of consideration by our executive board and special bankruptcy committees,” the council wrote. The letter contained few specifics, including the buyer or sale price, although it said the camp was being sold to a neighbor amenable to allowing scouts to use the grounds for at least another five years.
Patriot Path officials did not return phone calls for further comment.
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Even before the BSA’s legal troubles, however, Patriot Path was trying to sell Sabattis for reasons that would sound familiar to Boy Scout councils across the region — fewer campers were signing up, and the property was becoming too expensive to maintain.
According to The Sabattis Group, an organization formed to try to save the camp, Patriot Path appointed a task force hoping to find a way to shore up Sabattis’ increasingly threadbare infrastructure and make the finances work. Instead, it recommended the camp be closed. At a 2017 meeting where, according to the group’s website, protesters lined the street and “more than a few Board Members had tears in their eyes,” the board narrowly voted to give the camp another chance.
“Our response was to be aghast,” said Schwartz, who called on people both in New Jersey and the Adirondacks to stand up for the camp. It seemed to be working. Within two years, the group wrote, “The camp is financially sustainable, infrastructure issues have been remediated, and a core of volunteers continues to donate their time and funds.”
But the turnaround coincided with a growing crisis at the Boy Scouts of America, where in 2019 reports of abuse were starting to trickle in. Soon that trickle became a torrent, and within a year BSA was bankrupt and desperately in need of cash.
Local councils are largely independent of the national organization, and will carry on despite the BSA’s bankruptcy filing. So too will campers continue to come to the Adirondacks. Although the scout camps exist in the background, they are still appreciated and regarded as part of the community, said Tim Helms of Long Lake. Helms said his father, owner of Helms Aero Service, provides seaplane tours to campers, and that on their last day in the Adirondacks the scouts descend on Hoss’s Country Store to use up any leftover allowance on candy.
Tom Gehrig, a member of the Revolutionary Trails Boy Scout Council (which merged with another council to form Leatherstocking), was a scout like his dad before him and his two sons. For his family, the scout camp at Cedarlands was a highlight of the year. “We went up every summer, pitched out tents on the ground and cooked our dinners,” he said. “It was a nice, rustic camp. Scouting for me was great, and my Scoutmaster was like a dad — it molded my life.”
But Gehrig said society has changed. More people want their kids involved in multiple activities, and scouting takes too much time and focus. Scouting camps today have competition from soccer camps, computer camps and such, and camps that attracted 1,000 kids in a summer might now only serve a couple hundred.
Like Patriot Path and Leatherstocking, many current councils are consolidations of councils that had lost too many members to survive on their own. Many are land rich and cash poor and feel pressure to divest of a costly asset that’s getting less and less use. Ironically, many of these camps, often with rich histories, were gifted or sold cheaply to the Scouts when the land was of little value. The better part of a century later, that value has skyrocketed, and councils have found themselves with a highly valuable asset that is lightly used. Selling, in those cases, can be an easy decision.
Mark Kurtz, a volunteer at the Massawepie scout camps in Tupper Lake, said many councils had their own camps through the heyday of scouting. But when these organizations lost members and began consolidating, the resulting single council might find itself with several camps. Especially considering the cost of upkeep, there is little incentive to keep more than one.
Ultimately, Waldron said, the Boy Scout camps of the Adirondacks are likely to follow the same pattern as the councils — they will consolidate and a few will ultimately survive, with the fate of the rest up for grabs. “These are definitely desirable properties,” he said.
As for the kids themselves, Kutrz said there is reason to believe they will continue to have access to camps and the Adirondacks as summer camps — and scouting — enter a new era that is more inclusive and diverse.
The Adirondacks has been home to Girl Scout camps as well, and Kurtz pointed to the success of Eagle Island Inc. — an historic Great Camp that served girls for 70 years before it was closed. Ultimately, a donor helped Friends of Eagle Island buy the property and it has re-opened to high acclaim as a youth camp.
Boy Scouts too now allow girls, although in separate troops. Still, it’s progress. “Scouting is a phenomenal program,” Kurtz said. “They’ve had their issues, but their current operations are pretty good.”