Legislators asked to add forest rangers

Forest Ranger Scott van Laer of Ray Brook (Photo provided)

During a joint legislative committee hearing on environmental conservation in Albany on Wednesday, Ray Brook-based forest ranger and union delegate Scott van Laer called on the state government to add more forest rangers.

In the latest effort to add more forest rangers to the state Department of Environmental Conservation’s ranks, van Laer testified that the amount of land each of the 115 or so rangers patrols has nearly doubled since the 1970s. He also noted that statewide, rangers conduct, on average, one search-and-rescue mission every day. DEC Commissioner Basil Seggos, in testimony earlier in the day, noted that in 2018, rangers conducted 346 search-and-rescue missions.

“During my father’s era in the 1970s and ’80s, there were only 150 searches a year on average,” van Laer said during his testimony. “There were more rangers then. There were 10 more rangers patrolling DEC’s Region 5 than there are today, where the bulk of those searches occur.

“Further compounding this predicament is that forest rangers patrol significantly more land than they did during my father’s era. In the 1970s, the average acreage a forest ranger was responsible for patrolling was 28,516 (acres). Today that number (is) 53,752. And there is the question of use; there are substantially more people recreating on state land than ever before.”

Campaign has support

The union’s campaign has spurred more than half of the towns within the Adirondack Park to sign a declaration calling for more ranger positions to be added, as the state has purchased and added to the Adirondack Forest Preserve hundreds of thousands of acres of land in the last 20 years, including notable tracts such as Boreas Ponds.

In a poll conducted by the Lake Placid News late last year, Adirondack green groups identified DEC staffing as one of the top five threats to the Adirondack Park.

Yellowstone, Adirondacks

Van Laer compared the Adirondacks to a national park and noted that while its state land has increased, DEC staffing has not.

“A comparison of the National Park Service data on rangers and acreage statistics highlights the inadequacy of the current staffing levels in New York state,” van Laer said. “For instance, Yellowstone National Park is approximately 2.2 million acres of land and has 330 rangers assigned to it.

“Thus, Yellowstone Park, which is less than one-half of the size of DEC administered land, has 60 percent more rangers than all of New York state.”

He also said that at the national parks, each of roughly 3,800 permanent rangers is tasked with patrolling an average of 22,000 acres.

Constitutional duty

Van Laer went on to say that as state land has increased and ranger staffing has not, the state has shirked its duty to protect Forest Preserve lands as “forever wild.”

“A failure for decades to add more rangers has caused the state with the longest and proudest tradition of public land protection to fall far behind,” van Laer testified. “Article XIV of the state constitution calls for these lands in the Adirondacks and Catskills to be ‘forever wild,’ but that often-repeated phrase does not ring true without forest rangers to patrol all corners of the Forest Preserve.

“This proactive, preventative initiative has been lost. Now we are overwhelmed by not only the actual search-and-rescue incidents but also the possibility, or statistical inevitability, that they will occur any given day. Supervisors don’t allow rangers into the backcountry the way they once did in fear that they will be too far removed to respond to a rescue.”

Not fighting western fires

Van Laer noted that rangers don’t only conduct search-and-rescue missions; they also fight wildfires, both here and in western states under a mutual agreement. 2018 was the first year in many that rangers could not go out west to assist with wildfire efforts.

“While the DEC continues to deflect with talking points when questioned about the appropriateness of the current number of forest rangers, New York state’s failure to provide aid to our western states beleaguered by fire speaks volumes,” van Laer testified. “As over 6 million acres burned in the western states … resources came from as far away as New Zealand and Australia, yet New York remained idle.

“New York’s failure to aid other states during an unparalleled fire year says something the DEC refuses to admit. It is a silent admission that we don’t have enough forest rangers in New York.”

DEC: record staffing

The DEC pushed back, saying in a statement that the ranger force is larger than it has ever been, even if the land patrolled is more substantial. The department also said it plans to add more rangers in the coming year, but the number of rangers budgeted for remains the same. Any new hires will replace those lost to attrition or fill currently empty positions.

“Our Forest Rangers are an elite force of highly trained specialists valued for their response to emergency situations in and out of the woods. They patrol five million acres of land and go above and beyond the call of duty on a daily basis to help the public safely enjoy the outdoors and protect New York’s natural resources,” DEC spokeswoman Erica Ringewald wrote in an email. “While the amount of acreage they steward and the amount of search and rescues have increased, Rangers are trained to adapt to changing conditions, which they have effectively done to manage for these increases.

“DEC is committed to ensuring that Forest Ranger staffing remains at historically high levels, and there are currently more DEC Rangers than at any time in its history. DEC is currently in the planning stages for the next Basic School that will train a new class of ECOs (environmental conservation officers) and Forest Rangers. This builds on Commissioner Basil Seggos’ commitment to bolster the ranks of its Office of Public Protection, which was reflected by the agency holding back-to-back training academies in 2016 and 2017 — the first time since 2007-2008 that happened. DEC has added 26 new Forest Rangers to their ranks in the last two years. There are currently 134 Forest Rangers and command staff across the state.”

Ringewald noted that in 1947 there were 100 rangers, 110 in 1952, 111 in 1958 and 117 in 1973.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment on van Laer’s testimony.

After Seggos’ testimony, he was questioned by members of the Assembly and Senate and said DEC asks for staffing when needed, and that overall DEC staffing is up slightly. Assemblyman Dan Stec, a Republican from Queensbury who represents a large portion of the eastern Adirondacks and whose father was a forest ranger, asked Seggos about ranger staffing as well.

COMMENTS