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Steve Nelson Retires After 15 Years at Philmont

Steve Nelson gives a speech at his surprise retirement party in Baldy Pavillion on August 4, 2023 at Philmont Scout Ranch in Cimarron, N.M. Photo by Zoe Cranfill.

Nelson grew up in Scouting and followed the trail from Cub Scout to attaining Eagle in 1973. He attended the National Junior Leader Instructor Training Camp in 1972. Due to the great leadership training and experience in staffing his local Council JLT course, he decided that he wanted to spend his life as a Professional Scouter. After attending Brigham Young University majoring in Youth Leadership and Recreation Management, Nelson began his professional Scouting career on January 1, 1983, in Reno, Nevada, serving as an Associate District Executive.

Over the next few years, Nelson served as District Executive in various Nevada councils. He left the BSA for a short period of time, where he worked as the Program Director at Aspen Grove, a family camp operated by the BYU Alumni Association. He then transferred to his home state of Idaho in 1990 and worked as a senior District Executive, Program Director, Field Director, Director of Field Service, and finally Scout Executive of Snake River Council from 2002 to 2008.

In 2008, Steve received a call, letting him know that he had not been hired for a job in the Western Region, BSA. But from that call, he heard about a vacancy at Philmont. He called about the job, talking to the General Manager and Director of Program, and was thrilled to interview and be selected to fill that vacancy.

He began as Associate Director of Program, in charge of personnel and basecamp operations, and then was promoted to Comptroller. He served in that role for nine years before becoming Director of Camping in 2018. The Director of Camping is responsible for all backcountry programs, along with the Ranger, Activities, Logistics, Welcome Center, Infirmary, Commissary, Tent Repair and Food Services departments. As a member of the Philmont management, he works to coordinate all aspects of the camping program with departments and operations across the Ranch.

When Steve stepped into the role, he wanted to improve upon the legacy of those who came before him.

“How do we excel at delivering the wilderness adventure that young people are coming here to experience? How do we continue to change lives? Those were my goals.” said Nelson. But it wasn’t so simple.

In the six summers that Nelson has served as Director of Camping, he helped the Ranch navigate through the two large fires, Ute Park in 2018 and Cooks Peak in 2022. There were two cancelled summers, for the fire in 2018 and Covid-19 in 2020, followed by the two largest summer seasons in the history of Philmont. In 2019, Philmont served 24,029 participants. This record was quickly broken as Philmont served 25,001 total participants in 2021.

After dealing with several consecutive seasons of difficult circumstances, Nelson adapted well to the chaos. Numerous itinerary changes were made due to burn scars and the closing of some camps and programs. He found new ways to manage program, while navigating through the pandemic and working with crews who contracted Covid. But above all, Nelson worked through those challenges and strived to be an example of positive attitude and servant leadership.

“There's always going to be hard times. . . But I think we're at a good spot now where we can continue to grow our staff, grow our leadership. Going forward, we can meet that challenge of how we attract more participants that are able to enjoy an exciting Philmont adventure. By building a quality program and experience, and having that word spread, we can attract more people back to Philmont.”

When Nelson announced his retirement, Philmont knew there would be big shoes to fill. Matt Hart was hired on as the next Director of Camping in April 2023. Shadowing Nelson’s final summer, Hart was able to gain an understanding of the magnitude of the operation and the complexities of delivering an exceptional wilderness experience.

Hart grew up in Georgia and has served various scouting councils in the Southeast for almost thirty years. He received a phone call from Roger Hoyt in April, looking for someone passionate about camping and Scouting.

“First and foremost, we've got to keep Philmont at that level." said Hart. "It's very easy to rest on your accomplishments, but we can't wait. We've got to find ways to get more people here. We have got to find ways to keep our staff engaged. There's a lot of passion on the Ranch, there's a lot of knowledge, there's a lot of brand loyalty, and there's a lot of folks who want to be here for the right reasons. You can do a lot with that.”

Hart's first trip to Philmont was in 2009. One of his most cherished memories is summiting Mount Phillips with his oldest son on Father’s Day that year. He wants to keep creating experiences people can look back on 10, 20, or even 50 years later.

“As [Hart] learns the operations of Philmont, then he's going to put his mark on what Philmont is. . . Now being here in this special place, with the special staff here, we're going to excel beyond what we've ever done before,” said Nelson.

In his retirement, Nelson plans to move back to Idaho where he can spend more time with his grandkids. He plans to relax a bit, golfing and gardening, but he also wants to continue to find opportunities to serve others along with his wife.

“This has been an incredible journey. And I have received far more than I've ever been able to give. I want to have that continue. This is joy. This is happiness, to stand on top of the Tooth of Time and look out over the horizon and see there are still more opportunities to grow."

Steve Nelson- Director of Camping Services

Steve Nelson poses for a photo with his wife, Diane at his retirement party on August 4, 2023 at Philmont Scout Ranch in Cimarron, N.M. Photo by Victoria Case

A plaque hung on my kitchen wall as I grew up. The same plaque hangs on the wall of many family homes and office walls. It was a “We All Made It” plaque. It was earned by my father and my older brother for completing a trek at Philmont in 1967. It is the same plaque we hand out every night of the summer to crews as they complete their trek.

Why do these four words, “We All Made It” have such significance? It is because they represent all the preparation that went into being ready to make the journey. They represent all the hard work on the trail and the challenges overcome in order for everyone to succeed. They represent the joy and fellowship created while a small group of people support each other each day of the trek. They represent lives changed because of this special place.

Well, my friends, We All Made It. We have reached the end of the summer and our time together this year. It has been an amazing summer. I am so proud of each of you, and the work and energy you have put into making this place so wonderful, for all who have experienced their Philmont journey. Because of you, we have delivered the wilderness adventure that we Steve Nelson- Director of Camping Services promise. You have shown everyone that you care and that you are driven to provide an exceptional customer experience. THANK YOU!

I share with you one last piece of advice from the final episode of the show Ted Lasso. It is a quote from Higgins: “Always be moving towards better.” If we are constantly working to be better in whatever we do, then we can experience tremendous success in all we do.

For me personally, the end of this summer marks the end of my time here at Philmont. For the past 16 summers, I have been blessed to work alongside the very best people you could ever know. I have made hundreds and hundreds of friends through the great staff of Philmont. We have experienced many challenges and extremely difficult times. However, we all strived to be better and to do better. I am grateful for all who I have met along the trail and the way that they have made me a better person. I have been blessed in so many ways by the time we have spent at Philmont, and as my wife Diane and I complete our trek here, I am so proud to say, “We All Made It”.

Matzaquic pa ri be (May your journey be amazing)

- Steve Nelson

Matt Hart - Assistant Director of Camping Services

On April 21st the unexpected happened when I received the phone call informing me that I would be heading to Philmont Scout Ranch to shadow Steve Nelson’s final few months with the BSA. To say these few months have been a blur would be an understatement. As we all know, our summer season together seems to fly by in just a moment. However, the opportunity to be at Philmont for an entire summer season is the best possible on-the-job experience there could be. I am grateful to everyone on the ranch for their friendliness and helpfulness, and mostly for their warm welcome to the Philmont family.

My entire life has been involved with camp operations so the opportunity to serve the BSA’s largest camping operation is humbling. It seems like just yesterday I arrived at Philmont for the first of many times as a participant and going through all the items that happen in basecamp on day 1. To be given the opportunity to be responsible now for the other side of the guest experience for thousands of guests going forward is inspiring.

The main item I have learned this summer is that we have the most incredible people serving on our team. Each of you takes your job seriously and understands Matt Hart - Assistant Director of Camping Services the importance of our success. Your dedication and willingness to carry on every “day 1” is amazing. It is surprising to our guests the number of people that are working at Philmont to make this magical place operate. I have heard many times this summer comments about the “well-oiled machine”. You have impressed a lot of scouts and Scouters this summer, and for that I thank you.

As our time together this summer winds down, I want to thank you for your dedicated service to the Philmont experience. Thousands of people have had their life changed in a positive way because of you. I hope you take great pride in knowing that you are appreciated, and your job mattered. While I know that many will not be able, I do hope that many of you are preparing to return HOmE in 2024 as we continue to Change Lives. We have many accomplishments to which we should be very proud, but as we all know, accomplishments are something to build on, not rest on. I look forward to joining you on the trail as we never stop trying to get better for the youth of Scouting.

- Matt Hart

Steve Nelson smiles as he looks out over the porch at Beaubien on July 26, 2023 at Philmont Scout Ranch in Cimarron, N.M. Photo by Zoe Cranfill.

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