‘Failed’ Eagle project becomes bill signed by President Obama

Updated July 29: The bill has been signed into law.

Eagle Scout projects make a difference.

Apparently, the same can also be said of Eagle project ideas that never quite pan out.

Here’s the story of a failed Eagle project that sparked a piece of legislation passed by the U.S. House and Senate and signed by President Obama. It’s proof that what you do in Scouting matters, even if sometimes it takes a few years to realize it.

Meet Chris Sugrue

chris-sugrue-2For his project, Chris Sugrue wanted to expand a local cemetery in the Black Hills of South Dakota.

The cemetery, built in 1880, is located on U.S. Forest Service property, so it would take an act of Congress — literally — to make any changes to it.

You might have heard that things don’t always move quickly in Washington, so Chris had to find another project. After another two failed ideas, he did and earned the Eagle Scout Award.

That was in 2009.

Five years later, Chris just turned 23 and got some exciting news about his failed Eagle project.

The project idea was the spark that eventually became the Black Hills Cemetery Act. I spoke with Chris’ dad and former Scoutmaster, Jeff Sugrue of Black Hills Area Council Troop 52, for details.

Jeff tells me Chris’ Eagle project idea inspired a group of volunteer firefighters to push for legislation to expand this and eight other Black Hills cemeteries.

Jeff even helped draft a version of the bill that was sponsored by U.S. Rep. Kristi Noem. The House passed the bill in May, and the Senate did the same earlier this month.

Obama’s signature on Friday, July 25, made the bill an official law.

“We had always wanted [the cemetery] to get transferred back to the community,” Jeff tells me. “It was managed under a special-use permit. Special-use permits are supposed to be temporary, but cemeteries aren’t temporary.”

With Obama’s signature, the Black Hills Cemetery Act transfers the ownership of nine Black Hills cemeteries and the area surrounding them from the U.S. Forest Service to the local communities that have been taking care of them.

Had it been possible to cut through the red tape in time, Chris would have put a fence around one of the expanded cemeteries for his project.

“Unfortunately, we just couldn’t make the bureaucracy train move fast enough,” Jeff says.

Chris, in a post on the Boy Scouts of America’s Facebook page, shared the moral of this story:

What you do as a Boy Scout makes a difference. It took me FIVE YEARS to see that. The choices we make and the actions we take impact our communities in ways we won’t see for years to come. Sometimes you will feel too small or insignificant, but that’s when you should turn to your mentors or leaders for advice. They will give you all the knowledge you need. What you do with it then is your choice.

Eagle project, take 4


After the cemetery project was shelved, Chris worked on two other project ideas. One was canned because of a lack of funding. Another, at Wind Cave National Park, was scrubbed because of a fungal outbreak in a section of the cave.

Some might have given up after three failed attempts, but Chris persevered.

For his fourth and ultimately successful project, Chris identified and marked trails in the Jewell Cave National Monument in South Dakota.

His work ensures that when explorers go into the cave for scientific research they don’t destroy its pristine nature.

Jeff is understandably proud of Chris, who this summer is working at Medicine Mountain Scout Ranch as health director.

Jeff makes sure to tell Chris’ story to any future Eagle Scout he meets. He thinks there’s a lesson for anyone about to plan an Eagle project.

“I shared Chris’ story with a group of about 10 Life Scouts a couple of weeks ago,” he says. “I tell them: One, it’s never too early to start. Two, don’t ever give up. If you’re persistent and have a vision for becoming an Eagle and continue to work to that goal, you can make it happen.”


    • Normally I’d agree, Sean, but “failed” is the word Chris himself used to describe his three unsuccessful project ideas.

  1. I agree, failed isn’t quite right. My kid can start thinking up Eagle project ideas now and we were told he needed to get them approved first before working on them. Didn’t this kid’s board of review say, nice idea, but you’ll never get approval in time? A lot of boys in our troop are under a tight deadline when they get to their project.

    • Sometimes disappointment is heard better from another source than the Board of Review(BOR). BOR just does the idea but still send the Scout for others for signatures. There is learning in this whole process of Doing an Eagle Scout so why dampen an idea. Now as we look back here, isn’t it a good thing the BOR sent the Scout forward instead of rejecting it in a BOR thus never letting the idea leave the Troop?

    • I don’t recall the totality of pre-approval for a project in the 80s when I did my project. But it was’t more than a couple paragraphs indicating the intended work to be done and identifying who the main players were. I could totally see a scout starting this and then finding out it wouldn’t happen. I know my project started with no more than some thoughts of how it might be done.

  2. The Scoutmaster, Troop committee and District should have all questioned him regarding his conversation with the benifactor about the project he wanted to do. The scout who would have needed to have sign off on the project before he started it. Maybe it fell through the craks of the red tape. Sad that he ran into difficulties. My son’s inital request to build puzzles for the Ronald McDonald House was denied until I had a follow up conversation with the District and said he isn’t required to bild bird houses or paint benches.

  3. Thanks for the trail markers, Chris! I hope to get back to the black hills some time and spelunk!

    Yes, projects can and do “bounce around”. Some boys have a tough time matching their vision with what beneficiaries want and are allowed to have. The moral: float your ideas as soon as you have them. This will allow you to find one that can be implemented in a reasonable time frame.

  4. I volunteer with a not-for-profit organization that maintains hiking trails in a National Park and am the park’s beneficiary representative when it comes to Eagle Scout projects on its trails. Unfortunately Chris has discovered getting an Eagle Scout project approved on government land (federal, state, or local) often depends on the whims and personalities of the receiving organization.

    Kudos to Chris Sugrue for persevering in finding another project (with a different federal agency) who was willing to work with him.

  5. As Sir Winston Churchill said, in giving the shortest speech in his life, spoke these words when he walked to the podium. He said “Never give up. Never give up. Never give up.”
    That has always stuck w/me thru the years. One may not get the answer one is looking for immediately or in near future but planting the seed properly in the right soil & conditions can yield a wonderful crop. Life is a day-to-day experience. Live it, plant the seed and Never Give Up (on your dreams)!
    Eagle Scout, Class of ’62

  6. I’m AMAZED as I read some of these comments on Eagle Board of Review and questioning why the Scout was even approved for his idea. As we look back aren’t any of you GLAD that his idea was approved when you end up reading an article like this?

    Should a Board of Review really be responsible for denying EVERY idea they think is bad? Isn’t there a lesson taught in unsuccessful ideas? Is the Board the correct people to know the full ins and outs of permits and more? (Makes me wonder what those signatures are all for?) More over, should the disappointment come so close to home, from the Board rather than from an outside source, the town? Isn’t many a discord started within a Troop because of the ‘blame’ game or ‘saving the Scout from hardship/disappointment thus a true lesson is missed.

    For my son’s, we did mile markers. Little did we and the Troop committee know how many permits we involved when we first started. (We all just thought 2.) We needed approval from the Building Supervisor, Village Board, Town Board and Trail Committees before we even went to the State as each had a stake in where the mile markers went. That is 6 permits/ approval before the final installation of those mile markers. Let’s not forget the insurance end please and all who needed a copy of that as well.

    Let those ideas go forth into the Communities instead of keeping them in the Troop as this article clearly shows. Maybe not now but deaf-initely later we can see success of that idea born!

  7. The “Failure” was in a sense beneficial to him…it showed that your ideas, while valuable, may not have come at the right time for everything to come together…the fact that he had two more roadblocks before his final successful project built his character more and may have been more valuable to him than having the first one go through. He learned, among other things, perserverance. It was on the 4th try to get a project that my grandson had success in finding a project that was needed and that the various groups necessary would cooperate on.,,,Sticking to the process, finding what some organization needs and bringing the resources to it are what it is all about, That’s why the rank is so respected in terms of college applications and job applications

  8. A lot of assumptions are being made about how and when Chris’ projects “failed.” I see nothing in the article to say whether or not the Eagle Board approved this project or if the idea was scrapped earlier in the process due to the difficulties in getting Congressional approval for the expansion.

    The point is really not about whether the Eagle Board should or should not approve a project of this nature; it is about one young man who had an idea that, despite not working for his Eagle project, still ended up having a positive impact on his community. From the article and from his facebook post, it seems as though the young man is the kind of Scout we all hope to mentor through our units.

  9. Great blog post, Bryan. How about one where you solicit readers to post interesting and novel ideas for Eagle projects? Thanks.

  10. Start planing early. Lots of people think that because the project is last under the list of requirements that you have to do the project last. I would suggest planing the project as early as possible even as a life scout, this way you won’t be rushed to finish everything on time.

    • Just a reminder though that Eagle Scout projects can’t be started until Life rank is earned. Doesn’t hurt to think of ideas or be on the lookout for ideas earlier though.

  11. I know Chris, albeit not all that well, but it is immediately apparent you can throw the word fail at Chris morning, noon, and night without him batting an eye. To take the word fail from his story takes away the whole reason for the story. It minimizes and marginalizes his efforts.

    Keep failing Chris! Your failures are inspiring. (And thanks for the rabbits)

  12. I look forward to a day when it is commonplace for a group to consider an idea that a young person brings to any board of decision makers where the answer is not “pass-fail” or “Yes-No”but rather; “Yes or Not Yet”. In other words, to ENCOURAGE creative thinking and foster in our young people the idea of thinking outside the box and discovering a way where no way appears clear! Way to go, Chris! Your “failure”is truly a success!

  13. I have multiple photos of the event today at the Silver City Cemetery with US Rep. Kristi Noem (R-SD), Chris Sugrue and other dignitaries. I’d be glad to provide.

  14. Several posters assume that projects were rejected at Eagle BORs. That’s not what the article says. Chris hit three logistical or bureaucratic roadblocks and had to start the project planning all over, but no one goes to the BOR without a completed project. The District Advancement Commtee, not the BOR , approved the project concept. They might have had to approve four different projects for Chris. So what?

  15. The take away for me in this story is one of character. Much like the temper in a blade, character is not gauged by the easy route, but rather by the difficult choices and perseverance to an ideal or thought when obstacles are encountered. This is what Scouting is- the defining and empowering of our own moral compass and the character to see it through both good and difficult times. Chris you are truly a beacon- may you find the dark corners in life that need your light shined upon them!!

  16. There is nothing wrong with failure. One of the many benefits of the BSA organization is that you allow the boys to attempt new and challenging things, expecting there will be failure. The exciting thing to experience is, when a boy fails, you encourage and help him learn from that experience and then try again. This approach is clearly lacking in our society which results in people just giving up and becoming a burden to society.

    Chris will do well in his life adventure. We’ll done Chris!!!

  17. This is fantastic. I understand what he went through for his Eagle rank. I went through 4 projects as well before I was able to actually get my Eagle project done. We must always remember if you have a dream never give up on it no matter what obstacles you may have to over come to complete it. Work your hardest and never give up.
    Thank you for sharing this fantastic story.

  18. There is still a recycle center in the community that a grew up in today, over 20 years later, all the bureaucracy forgotten. No one in that town knows how it got there, but it is a part of their day routine nonetheless. Leave a trace without a face.

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