Fallout from Boy Scouts Sex-Abuse Settlement Leaves Future of High-Value Rhode Island Open Space Uncertain
July 16, 2021
BURRILLVILLE, R.I. — A few days before Christmas last year, Bill Eccleston and Rich Dionne went snowshoeing, starting out from the Pulaski State Park and Recreational Area in Glocester. They followed the trail north for a few hours and then debated whether to turn back or keep going to the Buck Hill Scout Reservation in the village of Pascoag. They decided to head back, but the conversation got them thinking about the future of the 1,600-acre property in the northwest corner of Rhode Island.
The nature enthusiasts were aware that the Boy Scouts of America were being sued over sex-abuse allegations and had already filed for bankruptcy.
Seven months later, on July 1, the 111-year-old organization reached an $850 million settlement with tens of thousands of people, over decades, who say they were sexually abused when they were Scouts.
The settlement, which came after the national organization filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 2020 while facing mounting legal costs over the abuse claims, is one of the largest of its kind in a child sexual abuse case in U.S. history, according to The Washington Post. The story noted local councils, like the Boy Scouts of America Narragansett Council, are expected to contribute to the settlement fund.
Boy Scouts of America has estimated the likely payout potential of the abuse claims at a range of $2.4 billion to $7.1 billion, while a committee representing victims has valued the total claims at more than $100 billion, according to The New York Times.
The Boy Scouts of America’s national organization has agreed to contribute $250 million to the fund, The New York Times reported. The brunt of the settlement would be paid by the 250 local councils, which were asked to contribute $500 million in cash and properties. Local councils can also add another $100 million, funded with contributions that would have originally gone to a pension plan for former executives and employees, which the Scouts say is overfunded, according to The New York Times story.
The Boy Scouts of America Narragansett Council, which serves all of Rhode Island and some of Massachusetts and Connecticut, operates and/or owns nine properties. Some of the properties are a collection of different parcels.
Dionne and Eccleston’s snowshoe conversation back to Pulaski State Park revolved around the future of the Buck Hill Scout Reservation and the Yawgoog Scout Reservation, both of which are part of a regional wildlife corridor.
Both men, outspoken opponents of the rejected fossil-fuel power plant that had been proposed for the woods of Burrillville, are concerned one or both of the high-profile Boy Scout properties could be sold to private interests.
They fear waterfront houses will be built on Boy Scout property in what is now a lightly developed area around Wakefield Pond. They’re concerned the Buck Hill Scout Reservation could be turned into a private hunting and fishing club with all the requisite amenities.
“What’s going to happen to the huge Buck Hill and Yawgoog holdings here?” Eccleston asked. “Aren’t they going to be liquidated to pay off the settlements?”
Another question he and Dionne have is: Will the state of Rhode Island or a nongovernmental organization like The Nature Conservancy be able to buy and preserve these largely forested tracts of open space?
Eccleston noted the Buck Hill Management Area is geographically critical to the forest ecology of the tri-state corner, “like a puzzle piece to physically link together” publicly owned forests in Rhode Island, Connecticut and Massachusetts. The Buck Hill Scout Reservation is 1.5 miles from the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management’s Buck Hill Management Area.
The North Providence resident said the Yawgoog Scout Reservation is likewise critical to the Arcadia Management Area and Pachaug State Forest tract in southwest Rhode Island and southeast Connecticut.
They said it would be intolerable if the Buck Hill and/or Yawgoog properties were sold to a residential developer — “no matter how said developer would try to spin it.”
“The Buck Hill Boy Scout Reservation, over 1,600 acres of forest and undeveloped waterfront on pristine Wakefield Pond, is a crucial link in a North-South chain of state-owned public land totaling over 26,000 acres in Massachusetts, Connecticut and Rhode Island,” Eccleston wrote in an email to ecoRI News. “Sell that land to a residential developer and you’ve broken that Tri-State link and snapped that major corridor for wildlife migration.”
A spokesperson for the Boy Scouts of America Narragansett Council told ecoRI News, “At this point, it would be premature to speculate about any effect that the national bankruptcy could have on Scout camps in Rhode Island.”
New York’s Greater Hudson Valley Council addressed the settlement situation in its June 25 newsletter, noting selling property is a likely response.
“As the Council faces a multi-million-dollar payment, please understand that as a non-profit organization most of our worth is in our assets, which is our property. It is difficult to foresee a way of making this payment without selling a property,” according to a letter signed by four people in council leadership positions.
The Greater Hudson Valley Council has since put up three large properties for sale to settle its portion of the settlement payouts.
John Torgan, state director of The Nature Conservancy (TNC) in Rhode Island, told ecoRI News his chapter hasn’t had specific discussions about the potential fallout from the Boy Scouts of America settlement, but he said the pandemic-forced closure of summer camps and campsites last year made the staff take notice of important open space that may need protection because of financial difficulties.
Torgan said buying development rights to properties to help organizations from going out of business is always an option, for both TNC and property owners. He also noted TNC and the Boy Scouts of America have a history of working together.
In 2012, the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management, in partnership with TNC, bought 189 acres of land in Burrillville, near the Buck Hill and George Washington management areas, from the Boy Scouts of America Narragansett Council.
In the press release announcing the sale, Terry Sullivan, then the state director for TNC Rhode Island, is quoted, “The forests in the northwest of our state provide so many benefits … including wonderful recreation opportunities, protection of freshwater supplies and room for wildlife to thrive.”
Torgan said TNC has priority criteria for buying properties or their development rights such as: Are there endangered or threatened species on the property? Is it near other protected land? Is it ecologically important? Is it accessible to the public?
“It’s important that places that are special to people and important to nature are protected,” he said.