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Friday, March 1, 2024
March 1, 2024

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Boy Scouts selling off storied camps under pressure from sex abuse claims, bankruptcy — and locals are worried

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PHILADELPHIA — Camp Trexler drapes across 755 sylvan acres in the Poconos where, for a century, Boy Scouts have enjoyed swimming, making campfires and hiking.

But the forested land, complete with lake, is expected to soon go up for sale with zoning that could transform it into a housing development amid the rural hamlet of Jonas in Polk Township, Pennsylvania.

The camp’s owner, the Minsi Trails Council of the Boy Scouts, is one of 250 local councils across the United States under pressure to pay toward a $2.5 billion national sex abuse settlement that led to the organization’s bankruptcy.

Residents and a nonprofit are grasping for a way to save the land from development.

Linda Snyder, great-great-granddaughter of Jonas Snyder, for whom the community is named, can tick off many reasons why she thinks the sale would be an environmental disaster for the area, including that it serves as headwaters of Middle Creek, part of the Lehigh River watershed.

But, she said, the sale of Camp Trexler would also change the lives of those who live around it and beyond, by increasing the population, creating the need for more classrooms, and clogging local roads with traffic.

“It would make me very sad,” said Snyder, who is in her 70s and lives near the camp. “I know it’s important as an environmental area, but it’s also important for our quality of life. It would affect all of these people around here who don’t want it to be a housing development.”

Some of those scout groups are cash-poor but land-rich, prompting them to put thousands of acres for sale. The sales have set off a mad scramble as the scouts try to sell to the highest bidder, while conservationists rally to preserve what they can.

The best scenario, conservationists say, is to have the lands bought by states and folded into public lands.

It’s no trivial matter: Scouting organizations own about 17,000 mostly forested acres in Pennsylvania alone.

What’s causing the sell-off

The Boy Scouts of America filed Chapter 11 bankruptcy in February 2020 after states began allowing sex abuse victims to sue over claims stretching back decades. More than 82,000 abuse claims have been filed against the scouts. The organization says 85% or more of those claims are from before 1990, predating modern child protection policies. Most of them date to the 1970s.

Victims who became creditors in the bankruptcy reorganization stand to gain parts of a $2.46 billion settlement trust for victims. The national scouts organization and its 250 local councils are on the hook for $820 million. A federal district judge still needs to give final approval to the plan, which also calls for contributions by insurance companies.

The Minsi Trail Council’s share is $2.6 million for being implicated in claims. In a March 2022 letter that he posted on Facebook, the council’s CEO, Rick Christ, said the local group needs a total of $4.5 million to cover that and “other debts and expenses.” The council’s membership has dwindled from 10,000 youth in “the late 2000s” to about 4,000 in 2021, Christ wrote.

“Consolidating Minsi Trails Council’s camp properties has been the most difficult decision our council leadership has ever taken,” Christ wrote.

He said last week in an email to The Philadelphia Inquirer that he could not comment and did not respond to questions by email.

Opponents of the sale say they’ve been told Camp Trexler is expected to go on the market in the first quarter of 2023. All Minsi Trail camp activities would then take place on Stillwater Lake in the Poconos.

A land scramble

Locals, as well as many trying to save camps across the country, feel betrayed by scout land sales, noting that much of it was donated with the assumption scouts would hold it forever. The land for Camp Trexler, for example, was given by Lehigh Valley industrialist Harry Trexler in 1928. Trexler was also instrumental in the creation of Hickory Run State Park in Carbon County.

“People are insanely upset,” Louise Troutman, executive director of the nonprofit Pocono Heritage Land Trust (PHLT), said of Trexler’s impending sale. “There are lots of scout camps for sale, but this one happens to be in our backyard. It’s a great property and has been a camp for 100 years. A lot of people have gone there for generations and volunteered on the property.”

The trust, which owns the adjoining 417-acre Jonas Mountain Nature Preserve, has taken the lead on trying to raise money to buy the camp. PHLT and neighbors are hoping private and state grants will save it.

“I don’t think Harry Trexler donated this to become Trexler estates,” Troutman said.

Troutman said the Minsi Trails Council has been silent about potential offers, but she believes it is hoping for $4 million to $4.5 million. She said it’s hard for nonprofits to compete with deep-pocketed developers, and her group would not be allowed to pay more than a third-party appraisal — something a developer does not have to abide by.

She understands the dire financial situation of the Minsi Trails Council, she said, but selling the land “is not really in line with the values of scouting.”

It’s not just Minsi Trails Council under pressure. Similar sales are in process or complete nationally and in the region, including two New Jersey councils that held land there and in New York. Closer to Philadelphia, Camp Delmont in Montgomery County is up for sale. In South Jersey, the Garden State Council has no plans to sell its Pine Hill Scout Reservation in Camden County, CEO Patrick Linfors said.

Seth Cassell, director of forest planning with Pennsylvania’s Bureau of Forestry, said his office is watching several potential scout sales, although he said he could not disclose which.

“We are in active talks with scouts about several properties throughout the state,” Cassell said. “We are working with them. They are good stewards of the land.”

State grants are possible for properties that look to be a natural fit for Pennsylvania’s conservation goals, Cassell said.

Other camp sales

The Cradle of Liberty Council, based in Wayne, Delaware County, could hold such a fit. It is selling the 750-acre Camp Delmont, part of the Musser Scout Reservation, in Marlborough Township, Montgomery County. That council is obligated to contribute $6.8 million to the settlement. The land has been under a conservation easement for a decade.

Daniel Templar, CEO of the council, said the property was listed in January for just shy of $4 million.

“It’s highly unlikely it could be sold for development,” Templar said, noting that covenants on the land are “pretty restrictive.”

Kirsten Werner, a spokesperson for Natural Lands, a large land trust that is working with scouting organizations, said that the nonprofit holds a conservation easement, which prevents most development on the Cradle of Liberty property, and that the Bureau of Forestry has interest in the property.

For example, in October, Natural Lands announced that it had purchased 392 acres of the J. Edward Mack Scout Reservation in Elizabeth Township, Lancaster County, for preservation. The land was transferred to the Pennsylvania Game Commission, which will add it to adjacent land to create a 12,000-acre forest.

Meanwhile, Linda Snyder says she’ll continue to fight against the sale of Camp Trexler to a developer as she manages her small fruit-tree farm.

“Saving Camp Trexler is important,” Snyder said. “It’s my ultimate goal in life.”

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