It seems like a
classic mismatch—David versus Goliath. No, it is more like Jed Clampett versus
J.R. Ewing. On offense is the wealthy, Texas-based Boy Scouts of America—four
million strong. The reluctant defense is the almost-always-broke
Appalachia-based Wilderness Scouts of America—all 50 of them. I've met the
Wilderness Scouts. I would bet on them.
And why not? The
underdog Wilderness Scouts of Blairsville, Ga., have in their corner several
hundred angry Americans, including stock car champion Bill Elliott, a New York
City law firm, the Lone Ranger and Donald Trump. The Boy Scouts can claim
backing from little more than the ghosts of the 64th Congress of the United
States, which met back in 1915-17.
The crux of the
issue is that, according to the Boy Scouts, a 72-year-old congressional act
entitles them, and them alone, to use the word "Scout" in their name,
and they'll see in court anybody who says different. That stance prompted the
Letter. The Letter led to more letters, which led to a newspaper story, which
led to an NBC Nightly News with Tom Brokaw piece that made a lot of viewers
weepy and mad.
Because I was one
of those viewers, I recently found myself driving through the mountains of
northern Georgia, tooting the horn of my rented van outside tiny cabins and
mobile homes, meeting a group of kids who divide their time between studying
the natural wonders of southern Appalachia and trying to ameliorate its
poverty. Boy Scouts of America, meet my new friend, Wilderness Scout Brian
Gunter. "If you'd like to come to dinner Sunday night," says my new
friend, "let me know Saturday so I can shoot some squirrels. We'll fix them
up with white gravy and biscuits."
Brian can work the
wilds of the Georgia-Carolina border like Daniel Boone, from whom he is, in
fact, descended. Brian can make a meal by snagging fish and roasting them with
acorns. He can cure a stomachache with pennyroyal tea. He takes care of his
widowed mother, who is losing her eyesight, two uncles who are already blind,
and a little sister. Wilderness Scout Gunter is 15.
For most of their
4½-year history, the Wilderness Scouts, who range in age from 7 to 16, have
kept a low profile. You won't find the Wilderness Scouts at their headquarters
or a campground, because they don't have either. Instead, you will find them
cleaning up the old Blairsville cemetery, trimming brush and righting
tombstones. You will find them hand-seeding lakeside fields with forage for
geese and ducks. They put up wooden duck houses. They build underwater fish
habitats. They fill in abandoned wells. They take food to people even less
fortunate than themselves and carry firewood up rugged trails to elderly folks.
To finance their efforts, they make bluebird houses from scrap lumber and sell
them around Blairsville for $5 apiece.
On July 11, 1988,
life as the Wilderness Scouts knew it at the bottom of the Appalachian Trail
changed forever. "I didn't know what the heck to think when I got that
letter," says Harold Cornwell, the founder and leader of the Wilderness
Scouts. "I just didn't know."
The Letter came
from Boy Scouts of America (BSA) headquarters in Irving, Texas. Citing an act
of Congress (36 U.S.C. ss. 21 et seq.), legal counsel for the BSA was thereby
informing the Wilderness Scouts that they could not be "Scouts." Using
the word scouts, the Letter went on, "commercially exploited" the Boy
Scouts, and it was BSA's "sincere hope that we may resolve this matter
without legal recourse."
says Cornwell, who is not a man without pride, "that they just thought they
could write a letter and we'd fold up and die. But they had never run up
against a true Wilderness Scout."
the Letter, Cornwell got a local lawyer to write back and say. in essence, that
the Wilderness Scouts sure didn't want anybody mad at them, that they didn't
have the money for a legal battle and, since they didn't even have uniforms or
badges or mottoes, they were sure all of this was just a misunderstanding. The
letter back from the BSA was dark: "We will not permit this organization to
use the words Scouts of America."