Boy Scouts are known for being helpful, courteous and kind. Unfortunately, however, many have also earned the reputation as destroyers of natural and cultural resources.
State and federal officials say Boy Scout troops are among the worst offenders when it comes to vandalizing geological formations, as well as ancient Indian ruins and rock-art panels."Actually, the problem lies more with the adult leaders who allow the destruction to occur," said Bruce Louthan, president of the Utah Professional Archaeological Council. "The advisers have to accept more responsibility for proper ethics."
Among the most blatant examples cited by archaeologists:
- Two uniformed Scouts and their leader were discovered carting off stalactites they had broken from a cave in the West Desert.
- One Scout troop dug a large hole into an important archaeological site near Vernal, looking for artifacts. In the hole, they left behind their Boy Scout activity forms with the names of the boys, their Troop number and meeting date.
- Boy Scouts removed 800-year-old beams from Anasazi cliff ruins in Grand Gulch, in southeastern Utah, and burned them as firewood. Such beams could have been used to date the site.
- Boy Scouts added their signatures to a 150-year-old inscription left by fur trapper Denis Julien, marring one of the state's most priceless historic treasures.
"It's unthinkable a Scout leader would encourage his boys to add their signatures to something hundreds and hundreds of years old," Louthan said. "But it happens."
Craig Harmon, head archaeologist for the Bureau of Land Management in Utah, has been working with the Great Salt Lake Council, Boy Scouts of America, which acknowledges the problem and is sympathetic to his concerns.
"There is no question the problem must be addressed by every Scout leader in the state," Harmon said. "In most cases, people just don't realize the damage they are causing."
Louthan, Harmon and other archaeologists - many who have sons in Boy Scouts - would like to see the adoption of an archaeology merit badge and a greater emphasis on involving Scouts in preservation of cultural resources.
"The preservation aspects of archaeology fit well within their environmental ethic," Harmon said.
Most professionals acknowledge that Boy Scouts are genuinely fascinated by Utah's rich prehistoric heritage. And they realize they will never and should never prevent Scouts from visiting Indian ruins.
But they believe there must be a more directed effort by the Scouting council and land managers to teach Scouts and their adult advisers basic respect for cultural resources.
"It's not a pursuit for loot," said Louthan, who has been a Scout leader himself for the past 10 years. "The point of archaeology is the information that is lost forever when artifacts are pulled from the ground out of context."
They admit most of destruction occurs out of ignorance, not maliciousness, officials say. One Scout leader sponsored a dig on private land as a way to interest the boys in prehistory.
"They probably found some neat artifacts," Louthan said. "But sending Scouts out with shovels to dig Indian ruins inculcates an attitude that is contrary to preservation. It destroys something that is irreplaceable."
Some Scout troops have caught the spirit of proper ethics. One troop in central Utah helped the Division of Parks and Recreation build trails to rock-art panels at Fremont Indian State Park. Others from the Price area helped the Bureau of Land Management erect signs at selected archaeology sites in the nearby Buckhorn Draw area.
"But there's a whole lot more that Scouts could be doing that fits well within the Scouting program," Harmon said. "But it's a hard message to get out when the turnover of Scouting leaders is so fast."