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Generations of boys have learned about the woods through Boy Scouts of America. With kids spending more time indoors and in front of screens, BSA’s efforts are increasingly important in educating the next generation of forestry.

By Pete Williams

Jimmy Sawgrass is leading a group of Boy Scouts and adult scout leaders through the woods at Camp La-No-Che. It’s a balmy afternoon a week before Christmas at this mostly wooded, 1,480-acre Central Florida camp on the border of the Ocala National Forest.

Sawgrass, a member of the Muskogee Creek tribe, is providing a running commentary on trees, animals, hunting, and living off the land. He points out a 100-year-old oak felled by Hurricane Matthew two months earlier, notes various edible and poisonous berries, and shows where scouts like my 11-year-old son, who hope to earn their wilderness survival merit badges, must construct lean-to shelters and spend a night with only the clothes on their backs. 

“Everything you need is right here in the woods,” says Sawgrass, an Eagle Scout himself who has honored his ancestors for decades by sharing his knowledge of Southeastern Native Americans.      

The scouts and adults trudge behind Sawgrass, feet crunching palmetto fronds. Birds chirp and a late afternoon breeze whistles through the woods. Notably absent is the ubiquitous sound of mobile devices or the familiar sight of an adult or Scout holding a phone.

At a time when parents struggle to get their sons – and daughters – to disconnect from screens, go outside, and engage in activity that’s not pre-scheduled, adult supervised and micromanaged, the role of scouting in introducing boys to the outdoors and the forest never have been more important.         

Since 1910, generations of boys have come to learn about and appreciate the forest through Boy Scouts of America. BSA membership has tumbled more than 50 percent since its peak (4.8 million) in 1973, due at first to the counterculture movement and Watergate, then the rise of video games, the Internet, and micro-managed kids schedules that include year-round, one-sport specialization.

But Scouting is enjoying a revival as parents strive to get their boys away from screens. John Stewart, BSA’s Director of Corporate Engagement and Sustainability Director, notes that scouts spend 6.5 million nights camping a year.

“Over a 107-year existence, that’s a staggering number,” Stewart said. “We have an entire generation that’s learning about the environment in a classroom setting but very few kids are getting into the outdoors. So the fact that we can take million of kids into the outdoors each year and have them sleep under the trees and have an emotional connection to the forest is incredibly valuable.”

In his book Boys Adrift: The Five Factors Driving the Growing Epidemic of Unmotivated Boys and Underachieving Young Men, physician and psychologist Leonard Sax points out that “boys who have been deprived of time outdoors, who have spent more time interacting with screens rather than with the real world, sometimes have trouble grasping simple concepts.”

Sax notes how modern medical school instructors have difficulty teaching how the heart works as a pump since kids now can grow up without ever working on a car or even hooking up a garden hose – let alone camping in the woods.

The BSA’s Stewart, speaking in late September at the Sustainable Forest Initiative (SFI) annual conference in Clearwater, Florida, asked if there were any Eagle Scouts in the room. About 20 percent of the predominately-male audience raised a hand.

Stewart wasn’t surprised. A disproportionate share of forest industry professionals has achieved Eagle, scouting’s highest honor, which only 4 percent of Boy Scouts reach. Given the modern indoor culture it’s likely that a good chunk of the next generation of forest professionals and landowners will come from Scouting and other organizations that pull kids away from screens. BSA, according to Stewart, attracts 600,000 new families to Scouting each year.

“Every aspect of our program is designed to build character in the outdoor environment,” Stewart said. “We teach life lessons and believe that environmental responsibility and sustainability is important no matter what role boys will have in life. Whether it’s military or community leader, CEO, or something else, it’s important to have an understanding of sustainability and conservation.”

Though a Cub Scout (first through fifth grade) can advance through the ranks with minimal time in the woods, a Boy Scout must spend significant time camping. Among the two-dozen requirements to advance to Second-Class scout, the third of the seven ranks, a scout must go on three campouts, organize and lead the cooking on at least one, and take a five-mile hike using a compass and maps.

Forestry is just one of the 137 merit badges a Boy Scout can earn and is not among the 13 needed to reach Eagle Scout, which requires a total of 21. (Most scouts earn many more.) Forestry was, however, one of the original 58 merit badges introduced in 1911 and is one of just 28 not since discontinued, renamed, or combined.

Regardless of whether a Boy Scout obtains the forestry badge, he must spend plenty of time in the forest. Among the Eagle-required badges are camping, cooking (mostly outdoors) and either environmental science or sustainability. A would-be Eagle also must obtain at least one from a group of hiking, swimming, and cycling, along with either emergency preparedness or lifesaving.

Other merit badges that could take a scout into the woods include backpacking, bird study, canoeing, climbing, fire safety, fish and wildlife management, fishing, fly fishing, Indian lore, kayaking, nature, orienteering, pioneering, plant science, pulp and paper, search and rescue, soil and water conservation, surveying, and wilderness survival.

To earn a merit badge, scouts must follow an 80-page booklet and complete between 8 and 12 requirements from a menu of about 20 choices. Forestry merit badge options include going to a managed public or private forest with a forester, visiting a logging operation or mill, and interviewing a forester about career requirements. Other requirements include preparing a field notebook and identifying 15 species of trees; collecting and identifying wood samples of 10 species of trees; and taking part in a forest-fire prevention campaign.

“I grew up in a family forestry business, but my hands-on experience came as a scout going on camping trips, identifying trees, and orienteering,” says FLA board member David Hall, CEO of Hall Timberlands in Meridian, Miss. “I didn’t think much of it until forestry school when we started doing some of the same things I had done as a scout.”

BSA owns 964 properties in the United States, a number of which include managed forests. Its Philmont Scout Ranch, a 140,177-acre property in northern New Mexico and one of BSA’s four “high adventure bases,” is home to a demonstration forest. Scouts can learn about forest management and see different styles of management in practice at the rugged property in the Rocky Mountains.

In July, more than 40,000 scouts will descend upon the Summit Bechtel Reserve in West Virginia for the National Jamboree, held every four years. When the property opened in 2013, BSA partnered with the West Virginia Department of Forestry and the Society of American Foresters (SAF) to form the Conservation Trail on the property.

Boy Scout forest properties, like public forests, could stand to be better managed. Hall got involved with his local Boy Scout council in Mississippi ten years ago as vice president of properties and encountered resistance from longtime scout leaders who didn’t want to cut trees on scout property under any circumstances. Hall’s father, Maurice, who became active with BSA when David was working his way up to Eagle Scout in the 1980s, had faced similar pushback for years.

“There was overly mature timber falling over and dying every day,” David Hall said. “Finally we drew up a management plan where they could see how a managed forest could improve the trees and benefit the council financially.”

The council, which had just started a capital campaign and was in need of office renovations, agreed. Now much of the 400-acre Camp Binachi in eastern Mississippi is a managed forest. The Halls have helped the council with harvesting, thinning, planting, burning and spraying. The camp has been certified as a Tree Farm and used many of the cost-share programs through the USDA and NRCS to assist.

The Halls now are working with the Mississippi Forestry Association and the SAF to set up a forestry merit badge “Camporee” this year. A similar program has taken place elsewhere in Mississippi where SAF has put up the funds for the forestry merit badge books and brought in SAF members to teach the scouts in and out of the woods.

“It makes a huge impact to have a 100-plus kids going through the forestry merit badge at once,” Hall said. “A lot of the inner-city kids don’t get to see the woods at all. When you’re talking to kids about forest management and where everyday products like toilet paper or paper plates come from, you see a light bulb go off when they start to understand the process.”

The BSA’s forestry merit badge book is a comprehensive summary of a college forestry curriculum boiled down into 80 easy-to-follow pages. The most recent edition was updated in 2015 but taken from the work done a decade earlier by Jim James, who at the time was Weyerhaeuser’s director of Environmental Affairs and Sustainable Forestry.

The book explains the types of trees and the role they play in clean air, clean water, recreation, and wildlife habitat. There’s a long section on forest management, including detailed instructions on planting seedlings, along with a chapter on forestry careers.

Early in the book scouts learn that “we have the responsibility to be good stewards to ensure that forests are healthy today and that we can pass them on to future generations in as good or better condition than we found them. That is the goal of modern forestry.”

In 2013, BSA introduced a sustainability merit badge, making it Eagle-required. While that might seem like the influence of environmentalists at work, the sustainability badge actually became an alternative for the environmental science badge. Eagle Scouts must earn one or the other. The sustainability requirements focus on tracking and reducing household energy and water use, monitoring household purchases, and reducing overall waste.

The Texas-based BSA is a traditionally conservative organization with 70 percent of its troops church-based. “When we first used the word sustainability, you can imagine what the immediate reaction was,” said the BSA’s Stewart. “We had to remind everyone that conservation was one of the core tenets of our organization when we were founded in 1910. Conservation was one of the first merit badges. We’ve shifted to environmental science and stewardship and sustainability. To some that might have seemed like a political agenda so we had to stress that we’ve always been green.”

Of course, scouts looking for a real-life example of sustainability need only visit a private forest landowner. Matt Kenyon and his wife, Rita, have hosted a weekend Boy Scout Camporee every other year since 2012 at their 2,147-acre property in North Florida,

When the local Boy Scout council ran low on city and military-owned camp options near Jacksonville following 9/11, a scoutmaster approached Matt about camping at Kenyon Farm.

I figured they’d bring maybe a hundred or so scouts,” Kenyon said. The event quickly grew to 1,000 scouts, but the Kenyons don’t mind. The scouts, operating under their “leave no trace” mantra, are well behaved and leave the 100 or so acres they use in immaculate condition. They construct temporary zip lines and climbing walls, bring in portable toilets, and even build a small stage for a Saturday night concert.   

The 9-acre lake and aquatic center the Kenyons built for their grandchildren are perfect for the scouts, who canoe and kayak. Kenyon, whose grown sons never advanced beyond Cub Scouts, does not get involved with the weekend, but is happy to answer questions about his tree farm operation.

“You can tell some of these kids have never been far from asphalt,” said Kenyon, whose property will host its next Camporee in 2018. “They ask good forestry questions like why the trees are planted in rows and how we built the lake. Generations of boys have learned about the woods through Scouting. It’s very satisfying being able to share the place with those who might not have this kind of experience.”

Pete Williams is editor of Forest Landowner magazine.

*This story initially ran in the March/April issue of Forest Landowner Magazine.

 

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