Rangers seek more staff, but funding issues hold up progress
SARANAC LAKE — State Department of Environmental Conservation forest rangers have taken their message of increased staffing needs to the street, and have so far gotten more than a half-dozen Adirondack towns to support their efforts.
New York’s forest ranger force currently sits at 140, including supervisors and non-field staff. However, over the last few decades or so, the state has added more than a million acres of land to the Adirondack Forest Preserve that needs to be patrolled. In addition, Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s I Love NY campaign and an increase in hikers tackling the High Peaks has led to the forest ranger force conducting a search-and-rescue mission roughly daily, statewide.
And while rangers have so far kept up with their duties, one local ranger — who also serves as a union delegate — says the force could be nearing a dangerous point.
“I’m concerned that there will come a time when somebody’s life is in jeopardy, where an immediate response is needed and a ranger will be the best person to respond, and we won’t have a ranger available for a quick enough response,” said Scott Van Laer, a Ray Brook-based ranger. “People are going farther in the woods than they ever have been before.”
While the state has added land, the DEC has not generally increased the number of rangers patrolling that land. The average ranger is now responsible for overseeing about 40,000 acres of land. And while the DEC touts the fact that there are more rangers than ever before, support positions such as backcountry caretakers, trail crew and assistant forest rangers have all decreased over the last 10 years.
As such, rangers are increasingly relying on outside help, which comes in the form of the Adirondack Mountain Club’s summit stewards and volunteer search-and-rescue groups. Van Laer said the rangers are happy for the help but that non-police folks are unequipped to handle some things.
“They fill the gaps, but there are things they can’t do,” he said. “This year, we had two different instances where they [summit stewards] caught people camped illegally on [Mount] Marcy. Violations, mind you, but pretty egregious. This is fragile vegetation. It’s protected.
“[In] both of those instances, those groups got away with it because a ranger couldn’t handle it. In one of them, a ranger was going in but they had to backpedal and go to a rescue, and the people just got away with it.
“That’s the part of the stewardship that only we can do.”
Van Laer said that more and more, rangers are only responding to incidents instead of being more proactive regarding land management and hiker education.
“Stewardship is kind of vague, [but] it’s really talking to the people, it’s doing the hiking, it’s checking the camp areas. It’s doing enforcement, writing tickets for all the state land use that we do. It’s making the contacts with fire departments, search-and-rescue groups, with town supervisors.
“That’s where it’s lacking. They’re [DEC dispatch] dependent on us answering the phone at 10 at night, which is fine. But in the past, they were making that phone call 20 nights a year. Now they’re making it 50 nights a year.
“There’s going to be nights when you don’t answer. Even dedicated employees.”
A bill has been introduced during the past two legislative sessions in Albany that would require the DEC to hire one full-time ranger for every 30,000 acres of land the state acquires. But the push by the Police Benevolent Association — the union that represents rangers, environmental conservation officers, campus police and state park police — has been held up in the state Assembly’s Environmental Conservation Committee.
Chairman of the committee Steve Englebright did not respond to a request for comment, but the spokesman for a state senator who sponsored the bill in that chamber said the hold-up is based almost solely on cost.
“In terms of why it is taking some time to advance in both houses, it’s due to the cost of the proposal,” Matthew Nelligan, chief of staff for state Sen. Rich Funke, wrote in an email. Funke is a Republican from the Rochester area. “Any time you deal with staffing there will be additional salaries and benefits that need to be calculated and accounted for.”
This is a sentiment echoed by the New York State Conservation Council, which is a lobbying group for the interests of hunters and outdoorsmen.
“While the Council strongly supports the sponsors’ intentions, it is unable to support the legislation without a clear commitment to fund the positions and the necessary training academy to fill and maintain them,” A. Charles Parker, president of the NYSCC, wrote in a position statement.
Van Laer also said he’d prefer if the increase in staffing was handled in the state’s budget process, but with a potential deficit of more than $4 billion projected next year, adding new government jobs will likely be a hard sale.