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Reaction: Utah Scouting leaders show surprise, relief, appreciation and uncertainty

SALT LAKE CITY — Surprised but not shocked. Relieved to retain core programs. Appreciative of a centurylong relationship. And uncertain about financial impacts.

That’s how leaders of Utah’s three Boy Scouts of America councils summarized their initial thoughts Thursday after learning of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ plans to drop the Varsity and Venturing programs for older-teen boys.

“This is a surprise, and we’ll meet the challenges that will come with the changes, but it’s too soon to tell,” said Stan Lockhart, president of the Orem-based Utah National Parks Council.

“We don’t have the whole story, but we know there will be an impact,” he said.

Said Mark Griffin, Scout executive of the Great Salt Lake Council, headquartered in Salt Lake City: “We appreciate the relationship (with the LDS Church) over the past 104 years, and we’re going to do everything we can to continue serving the Cub Scouts and the Boy Scouts.”

Trapper Trails Scout executive Allen Endicott echoed similar sentiments: “As a council, we are committed to helping all youth reach their advancement goals, while strengthening their character development through our core Scouting programs.”

The Great Salt Lake Council serves Salt Lake, Tooele and Summit counties and much of Davis County; the Utah National Parks Council covers the state south of South Lake County and spills into parts of Nevada and Arizona, and the Ogden-headquartered Trapper Trails Council includes northern Utah and parts of southern Idaho and western Wyoming.

Obviously, children and teens who are members of the LDS Church comprise a considerable majority of the youths in the three Utah councils.

Griffin said that of the estimated 75,000 youths in the Great Salt Lake Council, some 55,000 are Mormon. Meanwhile, the Utah National Parks Council counted 85,419 youths and 44,219 adults in 6,509 units at the end of 2016 — with Lockhart adding that 99.4 percent of those units were sponsored by the LDS Church.

So, while the dropping of Varsity and Venturing by the church is a big deal in states like Utah, Idaho and Arizona and into Nevada and Wyoming, it’s not much more than a little ripple across the rest of the country.

Griffin noted as much Thursday while attending a conference in St. Louis of Scouting executives representing the 15 “metro councils” from other areas such as Dallas, Houston and Atlanta.

The LDS withdrawal was foremost on his mind, since some 20,000 of his council’s 75,000 youths are currently registered in Varsity teams and Venturing crews. By comparison, the LDS Church’s decision may impact only a few hundred older teens in a similar metro council elsewhere in the United States.

The Great Salt Lake Council has the largest membership but the smallest operating budget of BSA’s top metro councils, and Griffin said the three Utah councils already are the most frugal, efficient and trim among their counterparts nationwide.

“A council our size (elsewhere) would have three times as many staff and employees,” he said.

And registration fees for youths, leaders and units go to the national BSA organization. “We don’t get any of that,” said Griffin of the local councils. “We live off Friends of Scouting, Scout-O-Ramas, fundraising and foundations.”

Friends of Scouting, donations and foundation contributions cover the operating expenses of the council, including the service center, council staff, refugee and low-income Scouting programs, training events, district program budgets and some awards, Griffin explained.

Event revenues, such as from Scout-O-Ramas, cover the cost of facility rental and materials, with any income split with the the youth's respective units for their own activities and uses. And camp use and summer camp fees cover costs of the council camps, including the programs, food, staffing and operating expenses, both in the summer and year-round.

The Utah councils are most successful at what Lockhart called “the heart of Scouting” — the core Cub and Boy Scout programs for participants ages 8 through 14 and their leaders.

“With the older boys, we’ve had a falloff in participation,” he said. “We’ll focus a bit more on what we do really, really well. We’ll keep doing what we’ve always done, which is serving boys with volunteers, teaching the boys to become responsible citizens and community leaders.”

Griffin said that while Thursday’s announcement was a disappointing surprise — “we want to serve as many kids as possible” — it wasn’t a shock, since LDS leaders have been reviewing Venturing and Varsity for a number of years.

He’s mindful of the older youths who are strong in Scouting or Venturing and who want to continue in advanced programs and in major national events such as large-scale jamborees and extended experiences at New Mexico’s Philmont Scout Ranch. He said he hopes not to lose those young men but to see them either remain in the LDS-sponsored Scout troops or move to other Scouting or Venturing units sponsored elsewhere in communities.