Expulsion from the Boy Scouts of America is a dishonor few Scouts endure. But that was the punishment imposed on Kim Kuska, a self-taught naturalist and former biology teacher who had been with the organization for more than 50 years.
His crime: an obsession with the rare, and unfortunately named, Dudley’s lousewort.
Since the 1970s, the Eagle Scout and adult Scout leader-turned-whistle-blower has worked to protect the plant from extinction at Camp Pico Blanco, a Boy Scout camp nestled in the mountains along the Little Sur River south of Monterey, Calif.
The camp is home to nearly 50 percent of all known specimens of Dudley’s lousewort, a flowering fern-like plant found in only three places in the world.
But over the past four decades, Scout officials and camp staff have threatened its existence repeatedly by harvesting old-growth trees it needs to survive, crushing some of the few remaining plants and introducing potentially competitive species. Under state law, it is illegal to harm a plant that is classified as rare.
The camp also cut down several trees in the old-growth forest in 2011 without a permit, a Scout official acknowledged.
At each turn, Kuska was there to document the misdeeds.
The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection is investigating the 2011 incident as a result of questions from the Center for Investigative Reporting.
While the Boy Scouts has drawn national attention for its intolerance toward gays, the organization also has compiled a poor record on environmental protection. In 2009, Hearst Newspapers reported that the Scouts clear-cut tens of thousands of acres of forestland across the country and operated a dam at Camp Pico Blanco that killed at least 30 federally protected steelhead trout. The camp installed a fish ladder as part of a no-fault settlement.
At the camp, which is surrounded by the Los Padres National Forest, state environmental agencies and conservationists repeatedly have warned the Scouts to protect the lousewort. Yet the Scouts have continued to harm the plants, according to records spanning more than 30 years.
In 1989, for instance, Monterey County cited the Scouts for their “repeated destruction of Dudley’s lousewort and its habitat,” the documents show.
And in 2012, Brian LeNeve, president of the California Native Plant Society’s Monterey Bay chapter, informed the organization that he was “deeply concerned” that the lousewort’s territory was shrinking dramatically because of the camp’s habitat “disruption.”
“There have been some well-documented concerns,” Ron Schoenmehl, director of support services for the Boy Scouts’ Silicon Valley Monterey Bay Council, acknowledged during a recent camp tour.
But Schoenmehl said the Boy Scouts are now determined to “coexist peacefully” with the plant and are creating a camp management plan.
Kuska, 60, has been helping the Native Plant Society study the plant with its delicate white and purple flowers since the 1970s, when he served as the Scouts’ nature director at Pico Blanco.
In May 2012, before his expulsion, Kuska marked a lousewort near the dining hall with an orange flag. Two weeks later, he noticed that someone had rolled a wheelbarrow over the plant. Concerned, he added another flag to mark the plant and surrounded it with a circle of fist-sized rocks. Weeks later, he saw someone had placed the rocks on top of the plant.
“It was an unbelievably hostile move,” he said.
Schoenmehl said he was unaware of the incident.
The lousewort takes its name from the folk belief that the plant infested sheep with lice. The Pico Blanco species was named for 19th-century Stanford University botanist William Dudley. Thriving only among old-growth trees, it depends on leaf litter produced by the redwoods and on a complex array of fungi that grows on the roots of the firs.
After the Basin Complex fire swept through the area in 2008, the Scouts applied for a permit to cut 43 damaged trees. Monterey County officials granted the permit without considering how it would affect the lousewort, Associate Planner Joseph Sidor acknowledged in an interview.
The camp cut 38, including some in 2011 after the permit expired, Schoenmehl said.
“We shouldn’t have been taking down trees that weren’t covered under a permit,” he said.
Some of the trees likely were more than 200 years old, including four redwoods with diameters exceeding 6 feet, according to the Scouts’ permit application. The forest was considered old growth because it had remained largely untouched.
In April, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife found that the Boy Scouts had harvested at least one large tree in 2010 not covered under the permit.
In photos taken during the tree felling, which were posted on a Boy Scout’s Facebook page, wood cuttings could be seen piled on top of the lousewort.
The heavyset, 6-foot-4 Kuska has carefully tracked the camp’s blunders. He keeps meticulous records in boxes in the back of his covered pickup truck.
In September, the Monterey Bay Area Council declined to renew his Scouting membership, effectively expelling him without explanation. (The Monterey Bay Area and Santa Clara County councils merged in January, forming the Silicon Valley Monterey Bay Council.)
Kuska says he was kicked out for being a whistle-blower and exposing the Scouts’ environmental transgressions.
Schoenmehl says it was because Kuska was planting lousewort seeds in places where the plant did not already grow, including high-traffic areas near the infirmary and camping area.
These “reckless” and “unapproved” actions, he said, could compromise the camp’s activities by creating new areas that must be protected.
In August, the Scouts’ lawyers told Kuska that he could come to the camp only during supervised visits. But on May 1, Schoenmehl notified him that the council had revoked even that permission after he contacted CIR.
“This has only created further hostilities between you and our council,” Schoenmehl wrote in a letter to Kuska.
Kuska, for his part, is crushed by his banishment from the plants he loves.
“Someone needs to be protecting this plant,” he said. “Somebody’s going to have to defend it.”
This story was edited by Richard C. Paddock and copy edited by Nikki Frick and Christine Lee.