Boy Scouts to foster unity during national jamboree at new W.Va. camp

| Friday, July 12, 2013, 11:38 p.m.

MOUNT HOPE, W.Va. — An Appalachian Mountain hollow in the heart of West Virginia's coal country will temporarily blossom into one of the state's three largest cities when more than 40,000 Boy Scouts and leaders arrive Monday for the 2013 National Scouting Jamboree.

The event coincides with the grand opening of the Summit Bechtel Family National Scout Reserve, a high-adventure camp, marking a turning point for the century-old organization that soon will welcome openly gay Scouts into its ranks.

“The Boy Scouts has been permanently altered,” said Roger “Sing” Oldham, a spokesman for the Southern Baptist Convention, which steadfastly opposed allowing homosexuals into scouting. “What that means for the organization is yet to be seen.”

Those who support including gay Scouts and volunteers say the policy change and the nature reserve together offer the organization a chance to move forward while maintaining its roots of developing character through outdoors activities and community service.

“I absolutely hope the Summit can be a part of helping the Boy Scouts find its moral compass and show America once again why scouting is so important,” said Zach Wahls, 21, an Eagle Scout who last year co-founded and became executive director of Scouts for Equality, a pro-gay Scouting group based in Iowa. “The Boy Scouts is part of this nation's moral bedrock and one of its better cultural institutions.”

World-class camp

People in sleepy Mount Hope, where the nearly 14-square-mile camp replaced a former coal mine next to New River Gorge, wonder how the Scouts' new jamboree home will impact the town's slowed economy.

“I'm tickled to death the national Scout camp is coming here,” said Eddie Souk Jr., 63, the high school football coach and a former Scout with Mount Hope Troop 91. “The kids that go there are not going to run out of things to do.”

Souk, a Boy Scout in 1963, was first in line in May for a community tour of the 10,600-acre reserve where he and other scouts camped, hiked and hunted squirrels, deer and “molly moochers” — morel mushrooms to the rest of the world.

Three years of construction and a $400 million investment transformed part of the property into an outdoors wonderland.

In addition to campgrounds, man-made lakes and mountain-biking trails, it touts the world's second-largest BMX facility and outdoor skateboard park, the longest zip-line course in North America, the world's largest man-made outdoor climbing area and the world's third-largest shooting area for archery and firearms.

More than 300 Scouts from Western Pennsylvania plan to attend the jamboree that runs through July 24, said Michael Surbaugh, Scout executive for Laurel Highlands Council.

“This event is the best of the best, when it comes to experiences. That is the pinnacle,” said Surbaugh.

Until this year, Fort A.P. Hill Army Base in Virginia hosted the event. Summit Bechtel Reserve will welcome the national jamboree again in 2017 and the world jamboree in 2019.

The Boy Scouts of America, founded in 1910, held its first jamboree in 1937. This year girls will attend for the first time through the coed Venturing youth development program.

Facing obstacles

The Summit eventually will become a year-round camp.

Its construction, some of which will continue into 2014, takes place as the Boy Scouts prepare to shoulder major change with the lifting of the ban on gay members.

“The BSA helps prepare our nation's youth to face and overcome challenges,” said national spokesman Deron Smith. “While many people avoid obstacles, the BSA teaches Scouts and Venturers to face them head-on.”

In May, the 1,400-member national council struck down a 22-year ban on openly gay Scouts but upheld a ban on gay adult leaders. The change will take effect in January. The ban was based largely on a portion of the 1911 Boy Scout oath “to keep myself physically strong, mentally awake and morally straight.”

Southern Baptists, which host more than 4,000 Scout units with 108,000 youths, condemned the change and urged the ouster of leaders who supported it. Yet they allowed individual churches to decide whether to leave the organization.

“They changed and moved away from us; we didn't change,” said Oldham, who believes the Scouts soon will allow gay adults to be involved. “We feel like they've already telegraphed their intention.”

Fundamentals remain

Boy Scouts' membership declined steadily in the past decade, from 3.3 million in 2002 to 2.6 million last year.

Executives hope lifting the ban doesn't drive away members.

“America's youth need Scouting,” Smith said. “... We believe good people can disagree and still work together to accomplish great things for youth.”

Wahls agrees that allowing gay members could solidify, not destroy, the organization's future.

“I don't think it will fundamentally change Scouting. They will still play taps at night and earn merit badges. Ninety-nine out of 100 parts of Scouting will remain the same,” said Wahls, who grew up with lesbian parents.

“However, I think the message sent that it is OK to discriminate will no longer be a part. And that's a message that has no place in scouting.”

Souk said he isn't interested in the controversy — only in what Scouting meant to him and how his part of West Virginia could impart similar impressions on youths. He loved camping as a boy and can still recall the names of some troop leaders.

“That's what life is all about, building memories,” he said. “I think these Boy Scouts are going to work on memories they'll have forever.”

Jason Cato is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach him at 412-320-7936 or

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