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.
But Hancock said demand for a Christian youth program preceded the creation of Trail Life USA, which was partly catalyzed by the Boy Scouts' decision to include openly gay members.
"There were a lot of people who were hoping for better character and more traditional values," he said. "I think that Trail Life is something that has been needed for quite some time, but certainly the Boy Scout decision helped to boost that."
Utah is one of the few states that does not currently have a Trail Life USA troop, according to a map on the organization's website.
But the Trail Life USA's official statement of faith affirming belief in the doctrine of the Trinity would seem to preclude troops affiliated with the Utah-based LDS Church, a longtime and major sponsor of the Boy Scouts of America.
Following the vote to change the Boy Scout membership policy, the LDS Church released a statement affirming that sexual orientation does not disqualify boys from joining LDS-sponsored Scout troops.
"As in the past, the church will work with BSA to harmonize what Scouting has to offer with the varying needs of our young men," the statement read. "We trust that BSA will implement and administer the approved policy in an appropriate and effective manner."
In a survey conducted prior to the policy change by the Great Salt Lake Council, 70 percent of local Scouting leaders indicated they would either end or decrease their participation in Scouting if openly gay youths were allowed to participate.
But McCammon said that Utah Scouts and their leaders remain committed to the program and membership continues to grow.
When asked why the organization thrives in Utah while dwindling elsewhere, McCammon credited the LDS Church's leadership in affirming its support as well as a history of Scouting.
"We just have a great tradition of having Scouting in the state — a lot of great supporters and a lot of great leaders who love the program," he said.
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