Boy Scout numbers grow in Utah, defying national trend

Published: Thursday, May 22 2014 5:35 p.m. MDT

Jesse Boring works to untie knots in ropes as Boy Scout leaders and Scouts take part Saturday, May 17, 2014, in a Scouting expo at the South Towne Expo Center in Sandy.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — One year since opening its ranks to openly gay youths, the Boy Scouts of America continues to field criticism and see its membership siphoned by rival organizations.

But in Utah, home to three BSA councils and Scouting's largest sponsor in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the policy has done little to slow the rate of young men donning neckerchiefs and khaki uniforms.

The number of Scouts in the Great Salt Lake Council grew 1.5 percent in 2013, said Dave McCammon, the council's director of marketing.

The Utah National Parks Council — which includes Lincoln County, Nevada, and a small portion of Arizona — ended 2013 with 86,814 members, up 4.56 percent from 2012, according to Darryl Alder, the council's director of support services.

And Allen Endicott, a Scout executive with the Trapper Trails Council, said Trapper Trails membership grew 2.1 percent in 2013.

"Every indicator for us has been very positive," Endicott said. "Scouting is something that is loved in our area and really does make a difference, so we’re grateful for the continued support."

Endicott said membership typically dips during the first quarter of the year as 18-year-old boys age out of the program, before rising again as new Scouts are registered.

But even when accounting for those regular membership cycles, Endicott said Trapper Trails' April numbers were up 3.6 percent from the same period last year, when the Boy Scout National Council approved the new membership policy.

He said the Trapper Trails Council is tracking to finish 2014 with an annual membership growth of 2 percent, which is in line with recent state trends.

McCammon said exact month-to-month numbers were not available, but membership in the Great Salt Lake Council is tracking roughly 0.3 percent higher than the same period last year.

He said the past year has been effectively free of controversy as a result of the new membership policy.

"We’ve just seen a closer connection with our sponsors, and I think the numbers speak for themselves for our particular council," he said.

But the upward trend in Utah is an exception. Earlier this month, the New York Times reported that national membership in the Boy Scouts of America fell by 6 percent in 2013 — and 4 percent in 2012 — amid criticism of the compromise membership policy, which welcomes gay youths but excludes openly gay adults from serving as troop leaders or volunteers.

The BSA has also seen competition swell in the form of Trail Life USA, which was formed in the wake of the membership policy change as a traditional Christian values-based alternative to the Scouting program.

"Our mission is simple and clear: to guide generations of courageous young men to honor God, lead with integrity, serve others, and experience outdoor adventure," a statement on Trail Life's website says.

Mark Hancock, CEO of Trail Life USA, said the organization is currently operating 380 troops in 46 states, with another 300 troops working through the chartering process. He said 11 new troops are authorized each week, making total membership numbers hard to calculate, but each troop averages between 35 and 40 members.

"We know there are more boys participating right now than have registered," Hancock said. "Every day we’re still just amazed at the growth that we’re seeing and the interest in the program."

Hancock said it's fair to see Trail Life USA as an offshoot of Scouting — roughly 60 percent of Trail Life USA troops were previously affiliated with the Boy Scouts — and he complimented the Boy Scouts of America for having a "tremendous" history.

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