Forest rangers running ragged as search-and-rescues increase
NEWCOMB — The number of search-and-rescue missions in the Adirondacks increases every year, but the number of state forest rangers to carry out those missions hasn’t.
When Alex Stevens of New Jersey was last seen in the High Peaks Wilderness over Labor Day weekend, rangers and search-and-rescue volunteers were already occupied with another missing hiker — Richard Guinan, whom they eventually found via helicopter surveillance near St. Regis Mountain in Paul Smiths.
Meanwhile, as the search for Stevens continues as of press time, five local forest rangers have been deployed to Texas to assist with recovery efforts after Hurricane Harvey.
Between Aug. 29 and Sept. 4 in the Adirondacks, the same time state forest rangers were looking for Guinan — they weren’t notified Stevens was missing until Sept. 10 — rangers found four men who got lost canoeing on Raquette Lake, found a lost cyclist on the Moose River trail, rescued a woman with an ankle injury on Owls Head Mountain, found two hikers lost near AuSable Chasm and rescued another woman with an ankle injury on the trail between Cascade and Porter mountains.
Forest rangers, who work for the state Department of Environmental Conservation, conduct an average of 225 search-and-rescue missions a year, according to a bill in the Assembly that would establish a training program for search volunteers. Forest ranger Lt. Brian Dubay, the incident commander directing search operations for Stevens, estimated that rangers have conducted close to 300 search-and-rescue missions so far this year.
“What keeps me up at night is not only [the well-being of] Alex, but the possibility we might injure a searcher,” Dubay said. For example, he said, a talus field of rock fragments beneath Wallface Mountain, where rangers and volunteers are searching for Stevens, is dangerous terrain, in part because there are caves beneath it.
“That talus field could literally swallow up a human being,” Dubay said. “When we work there, everybody at the base of the ledge is wearing helmets and safety harness with 100 feet of rope.”
Dubay said that at the close of searching one recent day, one crew missed a helicopter rendezvous and had to walk out to the trailhead.
“Then I have to think, how much energy are they going to have in the morning, the team that walked out?” Dubay said. “We do need to think about how many people are left behind [to answer other calls].”
During the same period of time, another rescue call came in.
“I used a half-tired ranger and one extremely tired ranger to mitigate another incident,” Dubay said.
While the Adirondack Forest Preserve has grown with the state’s recent purchase of former Finch, Pruyn timberland from The Nature Conservancy, the number of rangers per square mile has shrunk.
“The High Peaks Wilderness is getting bigger by the day,” Dubay said.
“A million-and-a-half acres of additional public land in the last 50 years, but there are fewer guys than there were 50 years ago,” said Drew Cavanaugh, the forest rangers’ union head with the New York State Police Benevolent Association. He’s also a forest ranger captain. “It used to be a forest ranger covered 20-25,000 acres. Now, a ranger covers 50,000 acres.
“The state will absolutely tell you there’s a ranger assigned to all parts of the state, but if you double the area a ranger is covering, that means he doesn’t have time to get everywhere.”
Further, there has been an increase in hikers — and inexperienced hikers.
“The good news,” Cavanaugh said, “is the public has discovered the Adirondack Park. The bad news is, the public has discovered the Adirondack Park. We have a lot more folks going out there who don’t have the traditional skills for the outdoors.”
That includes people like Alex Stevens, whom fellow hikers last saw at the base of Wallface Mountain around 6:30 p.m. Sept. 2. Rangers are concerned that Stevens was ill-prepared for a stint in the wilderness and possibly lacked warm clothing. Meanwhile, Stevens’s web browser history indicates he did a lot of reading about Wallface, which presents a rock face favored by experienced rock climbers.
“Internet users and cellphone users have become our best customers,” Cavanaugh said ruefully.
As the weather turns cold and fewer hikers head to the High Peaks, rangers know it’s not going to get easier.
“We used to have more downtime in what we called the off-season,” Cavanaugh said, “but now the difficulty of winter searches makes up for it.
“In the winter, the searches become more technical. When we’re not actually rescuing, we’re training. We’ve had to spend the night in subzero weather with subjects we couldn’t evacuate, and that’s dangerous all around.”
Two bills to address the problem are making their way, slowly, through the state Legislature. S1365, sponsored by state Sen. Betty Little, R-Queensbury, would help establish a training program for search-and-rescue volunteers to help the forest rangers. This bill has passed the Senate but appears to lack an Assembly sponsor, according to Little’s spokesman Dan Mac Entee. Another Assembly bill, A3987, would require the DEC to hire more rangers as the state adds land to the Forest Preserve.
“We know it’s a non-starter to say we need to hire 50 forest rangers,” Cavanaugh said. “What we’re trying to do, going forward, is, say for every 30,000 acres they add, they hire another forest ranger.”