How Irvine Ranch Outdoor Education Center Is Embracing Sustainability

Ask a dozen people what sustainability means, and you’re liable to get a dozen difference answers—and each of them may be correct. That’s because sustainability is about a lot more than just recycling. Yes, it’s about saving the planet, but it’s also about taking care of people and making sure organizations have long-term viability. The most sustainable decisions focus on “both and” not “either or.”

Within the Boy Scouts of America, the Irvine Ranch Outdoor Education Center (IROEC) is a great example of “both and” thinking. The 210-acre facility, which opened in 2009, demonstrates how a Scout camp can impact the triple bottom line of planet, people, and prosperity. Here’s how.

In 2015, about 41,000 people visited the Orange County Council camp, but only 20 percent of them were Scouts. The rest were mostly schoolchildren who visited during the week for three- and four-day, overnight programs. Teachers are attracted to IROEC by its facilities, its programming, and its proximity; as school budgets tighten, it’s easier to justify trips within Orange County than trips to camps hours away in the mountains.

Of course, those kids visit during the school week, a time when most Scout camps stand empty. “We as an organization struggle to make our facilities financially sustainable outside of May, June, July, and August,” says Andrea Watson, Orange County Council’s director of outdoor adventure. “Certainly we struggle Monday through Friday to make them sustainable; you may have weekend camping, but you don’t necessarily have enough weekend campers to pay the gas bill.”

But IROEC is about more than financial sustainability. Schoolchildren visit not just to get a break from the classroom but to participate in specially designed science programs that meet or exceed over 100 California Educational Curriculum Standards. And many of those standards relate to sustainability. In IROEC’s life-science programs, for example, campers visit a citrus grove, work in organic garden beds, and learn about hydroponics and agriculture. (They also see the camp’s solar- and wind-powered well in action.)

Beyond the science lessons, school groups get a taste of Scouting during science camps. Like many Scout camps, IROEC has a pool, shooting ranges, a ropes course, a zip line, and an amphitheater for campfire programs, so school visitors get to try activities many Scouts take for granted. Recently, for example, a group of high-schoolers from a depressed inner-city neighborhood came to IROEC for a leadership retreat. “I cannot tell you how many of them were so excited to have a s’more,” Watson says. “My kids have been having s’mores practically since they were born, but these high-school seniors were just super-excited to have these kinds of experiences.”

Not surprisingly, campers go home with marketing materials about Scouting (as do other visitors, such as families who harvest oranges on U-Pick Sundays). After all, every young person who visits IROEC is a potential Boy Scout or Girl Scout. “They’re getting a taste of what Scouting is like, and hopefully that will translate into them joining Scouting eventually,” Watson says.

IROEC’s slogan is “Leading the Way Outdoors.” Through its programs for non-Scouts, it is leading the way toward sustainability in the BSA.