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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."
"I guess," 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."
After receiving 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."