CIMARRON, N.M. — Normally, Philmont Scout Ranch would be filled with thousands of adolescent boys, dozens of campfires and songs echoing off aged rocky walls.
But in these abnormal times, tent pads lay empty and trails remain untouched except by crews putting out small brush fires.
Owned by the Boy Scouts of America, Philmont is the largest camp of its kind and carries the most prestige. In 2019, more than 21,000 people across the nation came to rural northern New Mexico to backpack on the 300 miles (483 kilometres) of trails scattered across the Colfax County landscape.
From its beginnings, though, the COVID-19 pandemic had threatened the camp’s summer operations, the big money-making period for Philmont.
Philmont administrators developed a detailed 34-page plan outlining how camp operations would adjust during the pandemic to ensure the safety of campers and staff. Campfires were cancelled, the mess hall would be closed and troops would be kept more separate along the trail.
It would look starkly different from a typical summer at the camp, but administrators agreed and tentatively planned on opening programs July 1.
However, the state Department of Health rejected the camp’s plan — there was just too much risk letting thousands of people across the country congregate in one place. On June 4, the camp announced all 2020 summer programs would be cancelled.
“I wish there could have been some more back-and-forth discussion on it,” Philmont General Manager Roger Hoyt told the Albuquerque Journal. “We worked awful hard to make sure we got the plans in front of the right people.”
The camp’s closure promises to have a detrimental impact on the camp, local business and nearby communities, and comes during one of the most turbulent times in the history of the Boy Scouts. For many outside observers, the future of Scouting’s crown jewel has never been more uncertain.
A Generous Donation
Ask people to describe the Philmont Scout Ranch and they’ll all probably use the same word: “massive.”
The camp spans 147,000 acres (595 square kilometres), not including thousands of additional acres lent by the U.S. Forest Service for the camp to use. Incoming campers, some from featureless Midwestern skylines or dense urban areas, arrive to see the imposing Sangre de Cristo Mountains. They spend the next couple of weeks backpacking 70 or so miles across a score of different trails.
It’s the largest camp of its kind in the world.
In 1938 and 1941, Oklahoma oilman Waite Phillips donated multiple parcels of his favourite New Mexico ranch to the Boy Scouts, who later renamed the property Philmont in Phillips’ honour.
Since that time, Philmont has become one of the premier destinations for Boy Scouts and attracts thousands of visitors each year. As a result, the operations of the camp are equally large, with around 1,300 seasonal staff workers hired every year from more than 2,000 applicants.
Camping Director Steve Nelson speaks proudly of his first time at Philmont. He still has a picture from the experience hanging on his office from that time nearly 40 years ago.
“That experience made me realize that I could be a leader and overcome challenges,” Nelson said.
The drive to obtain this once-in-a-lifetime experience has brought millions of young boys through small New Mexico towns over the years. As a result, local businesses have become reliant on the camp for the bulk of their business.
The St. James Hotel, a famed 148-year-old hotel in nearby Cimarron, relies on incoming scouts for nearly 80% of its total business, General Manager Teri Caid said. The camp’s closure came as a surprise to many.
“We expected it to be decreased, but not completely eliminated,” Caid said.
In Cimarron, a town of just over 1,000 people, the population increases 20 times during the summertime with an influx of travellers. As a result, many businesses live and die by Philmont.
“They struggle through the winter months to make their money to survive in the summer,” Caid said.
In 2018, much of Philmont’s camping season shut down due to the Ute Park Fire, which burned nearly 58 square miles (150 square kilometres). After summer traffic died down, Cimarron’s only grocery store and several restaurants closed down.
The grocery store returned, but Caid expects many businesses won’t live to see another summer at Philmont.
“I believe everything else is going to close,” she said.
Phoenix Russell, whose family operates multiple businesses in and round Cimarron, says nearly half of his customers are travelling to Philmont.
“That’s a lot of people to not have in the town any more,” he said.
Russell said he believes Cimarron needs to adapt and offer something else so it’s not as reliant on Philmont for its customers.
The financial implications extend to all of Colfax County.
Many campers travel to Philmont by train, getting off in Raton before taking a bus to the camp. Raton City Manager Steve Berry said the foot traffic generated by rail travellers is a large part of the city’s economy.
“That’s a big component of our summer travel season,” he said.
Raton has already suffered financial hardship following the decline of its coal and freight railroad industries. Berry said those experiences dull the shock of Philmont’s closure.
“We’re kind of jaded about that and what the potential loss will be,” he said.
Amtrak, whose Southwest Chief line runs through Raton, recently threatened to remove the stop from the city, a decision locals say would decimate economic life in Raton. Berry fears plunging Amtrak revenues and reduced traffic of scouts going to Philmont could start those conversations again.
He also said Philmont’s closure this summer and the 2018 Ute Park Fire closure mean city officials are worried about the camp’s future.
“We’re concerned about the long-term viability of Philmont,” he said. “It’s possible they don’t resume operations at all.”
‘The Strongest Asset’
Hoyt does not agree that Philmont’s future is in jeopardy. He said the position the camp serves in the Boy Scouts of America will keep it afloat for years to come.
“It’s probably the strongest asset we have when it comes to the outdoor classroom and the mission of the Boy Scouts of America,” he said.
The closure, however, is the latest in a series of troubling developments for Philmont and the BSA.
The Ute Park Fire burned a large portion of the camp’s property and significantly impacted revenues for that summer.
And in March 2019, months before a record turnout of visitors for Philmont, the BSA mortgaged the property to JPMorgan Chase to secure debt of up to $450 million. Many officials at Philmont did not find out about the mortgage until several months later.
The Boy Scouts has also been struggling with a rapidly declining membership, down more than 20% over the past seven years, along with scores of lawsuits from years of sexual abuse cases.
Then, in February, the BSA filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in United States District Court in Delaware, promising they would create a fund to pay victims and families.
In order to gather money for the fund, the BSA will have to sell some of its assets. Those assets include millions of dollars in property, such as Philmont, although it is unclear if the camp will need to be sold at some point.
Deena Buchanan, a bankruptcy attorney based in Albuquerque, said courts will sometimes let organizations keep revenue-generating assets.
She also said the Boy Scouts have far more in assets than they do in liabilities, an unusual occurrence for this type of bankruptcy. She, like many critics of the bankruptcy, sees the filing as an attempt by the Boy Scouts to reduce the number of claims by victims.
The Boy Scouts have denied the claims.
Hoyt said he doesn’t expect the mortgage and bankruptcy to hinder operations, although the bankruptcy will impact their ability to fund capital projects, which will become a necessity with a record 28,000 scouts expected next summer.
“If this is how we operated for the next five years — which it won’t be — it could be an issue,” he said, adding they’ll rely on donors for some projects this year. “It’s really a short-term issue.”
According to the Boy Scout’s Chapter 11 plan, Philmont has a balance of more than $40 million. Hoyt said any revenue usually comes back to capital projects.
James Stang, one of the lead attorneys for victims in the bankruptcy filing, told the Journal the property could be sold if its value exceeds the mortgage. He said he expects the value to be discussed in court.
Hoyt said he’s not worried about the long-term future of the camp as he is solely focused on the next summer.
“People want to see Philmont be successful for many years to come,” he said. “I don’t spend a lot of time worrying about the hypothetical.”
Kyle Land, The Associated Press