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The Hornaday Award: One of Scouting’s rarest, most prestigious honors

Twelve-year-old Matthew Tropf spotted a photo of a shiny Hornaday medal as he flipped through Boys’ Life. He wanted it but knew little about how to earn one.

When the Uniontown, Ohio, Scout questioned friends in his troop about the Hornaday Award, nobody knew what it was. It’s one of Scouting’s rarest honors — about 1,200 medals have been awarded in the past 100 years.

Its rarity stems from the rigor of its requirements: The Hornaday Bronze Award requires six conservation-based merit badges, as well as planning and carrying out three service projects, each on the level of an Eagle Scout project.

“It looked like a lot,” Tropf says. “But after the first project, I just kept going with it.”

Thanks to encouraging advisors and after more than a year of work, he applied for the Hornaday Bronze Award. His application received the thumbs-up, but he was given a choice: Accept the medal or complete another project and earn three more merit badges to apply for the Silver Award.

The experience instilled in Tropf a deeper love for the environment, so the 14-year-old Life Scout decided to go for the Silver.

If he earns it, he will likely become the first Scout in his council to receive a Hornaday medal. Only two adults in the council have been recognized with a Hornaday medal in the last two decades.

“I was surprised that nobody had wanted to do it,” Tropf says. “I think that should change and that everybody should be more interested.”

A Rare Feat

Conservationist Dr. William Temple Hornaday led the charge in keeping the American bison from going extinct. The first director of the New York Zoological Park (known today as the Bronx Zoo) also established the Wildlife Protection Medal to inspire more Americans to save and preserve this country’s animals. After Hornaday’s death in 1937, the medal was named after him and became a BSA award.

The award includes a few tiers: badge, bronze medal, silver medal, gold badge and gold medal. Venturers and Scouts who have reached First Class rank can earn any of the first three, while the gold badge and gold medal are designated for adults, who must be nominated for one after years of environmental service. Certificates are also available for groups.

Despite its high purpose, few apply to receive a Hornaday Award. Some years, fewer than 50 nationwide submit an application for a medal, says Tim Beaty, chair of the national Hornaday Awards committee.

The workload likely intimidates many who are interested. On average, it takes about two and a half years and at least 1,000 man-hours to complete. Such an intensive endeavor calls for consistent support.

“When the youth is left to do a whole lot on their own, it’s easier for them to give up,” Beaty says.

Amelia Berle, a former Venturer from the Middle Tennessee Council, received plenty of support as she sought the Hornaday Silver Award two years before she aged out. She recruited family members, friends, crew members, summer camp staff, college students and Girl Scouts to help with her ambitious four projects.

Her projects racked up more than 1,000 work hours as she identified about 6,000 hemlock trees to be inoculated against a destructive insect, removed an invasive ivy from a state park, built a retaining wall at another park to solve an erosion problem, and developed and taught a lesson plan about the water table at a Cub Scout camp.

All this while double-majoring in biology and computer science in college.

“It’s completely doable and quite enjoyable,” Berle says. “You just have to be dedicated. It’s going to take a lot of your time.”

Set Up for Success

Eagle Scouts make up more than 90 percent of Hornaday applicants. These are driven Scouts; however, many of their submissions end up being rejected for a host of reasons.

“Most fail because they don’t have a good advisor,” Beaty says. “This is a lot of work. It can’t just be for a weekend. You have to have a passion.”

To capture the conservation spirit Hornaday set forth, Scouts shouldn’t cut corners with a quick trip to the local park. These projects need to provide positive measurable outcomes for the environment, meaning follow-up observations will be warranted.

Adrian Corona-Vallet, an Eagle Scout in the Far East Council, cleaned a polluted freshwater stream near an Indonesian village as part of his endeavor for a silver medal.   

“I believe that water is an essential resource and an important part of the global natural resource cycle that simply cannot be neglected,” Corona-Vallet says.

He installed plumbing to divert sewage from infiltrating the stream and directed it to a septic tank and garden. He monitored how the environment reacted weeks after it was installed. Other projects he did called for more than a year of observation.

As long as they deal with conservation, Eagle Scout projects can count as one of the necessary Hornaday projects. The awards committee has seen many projects that included fixing a trail or building a bridge in a park, which were rejected.

“None of those are conservation issues,” Beaty says. “They’re ‘helping people’ issues.”

Corona-Vallet’s freshwater stream project helped both, since he also put in a water filtration system to purify a village water well. His project cleaned the water table and also provided villagers with clean drinking water and a beautiful, vibrant garden.

An advisor can guide the Scout toward appropriate projects. Projects should concern at least one of the following (note that each project should tackle a different topic):

Most of the time, Scouters serve as advisors with council chairs overseeing the work, but finding experts in any of these environmental fields helps immensely. Park rangers might not have the time or resources to organize and supervise a service project. Beaty suggests seeking assistance from conservationists or land-management professionals.

Applicants will often have multiple advisors, some supervising individual projects.

Scouts can work on projects simultaneously. Logistics and planning play a large part in a successful project.

“You always have more options out there,” Tropf says. “You get to think outside of the box a lot.”

An Olympic Medal From the Earth

It’s definitely a positive for all when a Scout is interested in the Hornaday Award. Applicants can demonstrate leadership and see the tangible impact of their work, while younger Scouts have the opportunity to earn service hours and learn about the environment.

In one of Tropf’s projects, his fellow troop members’ families saw energy savings in their homes. Thanks to Berle’s efforts, thousands of trees could be saved from devastation. Corona-Vallet was able to educate villagers to be more mindful of the environment, and one of them was inspired to emulate one of the Scout’s projects himself.

“It was amazing to see the project efforts multiplying,” Corona-Vallet says. “It was a real learning journey over three years — an adventure! I learned that patience and persistence are essential.”

Many Hornaday Award recipients go on to earn college degrees in conservation and become experts in environmental fields.

“It is a stepping stone for sure,” Beaty says.

Berle and Tropf agree that the paperwork proved to be the most monstrous behemoth to conquer. The Hornaday Awards committee expects a mature, in-depth write-up. Tropf’s final application reached 180 pages, including photographs and references.

Trained Scouters give applicants a greater chance of submitting a stellar report. Training sessions used to be held at Philmont Scout Ranch a few times a year. This resulted in only a handful of trained Scouters across the nation. So regional training sessions are being planned to reach more interested people.

The more interest, the more Scouts can endeavor to join an elite class of conservationists.

The Hornaday is “not easy; it’s not designed to be easy,” Beaty says. “It is prestigious; it is extremely rare.”

By the Numbers

Since 1914, 5,300 Hornaday awards have been bestowed to conservation-minded Americans. Nearly half of those were Hornaday badges. Fewer than 1,000 have been unit certificates, which were introduced in 1940.

A total of 897 medals were given from 1914 to 1974. In 1975, bronze, silver and gold distinctions were created. Since then, fewer than 50 gold, 150 bronze and 150 silver medals have been earned. Gold badges were introduced in 2000 and almost 600 have been awarded so far.

The Tier of Awards

The Hornaday Award comes in badges, medals and certificates. Here’s what you need to do to qualify for each one.


Scouts must earn five merit badges from the list below — including three listed in bold — plus plan and carry out one significant project.

Bronze Medal

Scouts must earn six merit badges from the list below including Environmental Science and three in bold, plus plan and carry out three significant projects. Reviewed by a national committee.

Silver Medal

Scouts must earn nine merit badges from the list below, including all of those listed in bold, plus plan and carry out four significant projects. Reviewed by a national committee.

Unit Certificate

At least 60 percent of registered members in a pack, troop, team or crew must carry out a substantial
conservation project.

Gold Badge

Scouters or Venturing leaders can be nominated for leading and educating youth on conservation efforts
on a council or district level for at least three years.

Gold Medal

Scouters or Venturing leaders can be nominated for leading and educating youth on conservation efforts
on a regional, national or international level. Reviewed by a national committee.

Gold Certificate

Corporations or organizations can be nominated for leading and educating youth on conservation efforts in an outstanding way. Reviewed by a national committee.

Hornaday merit badges (required list in bold)

To download applications and read more about the Hornaday Awards, visit