It’s not just rangers DEC needs more of

Forest rangers, through their union, are starting a campaign they hope will sway state leaders into hiring more of them. Starting in the Adirondacks, the rangers are asking town boards to approve a resolution asking the state to hire more rangers. Last week in Paul Smiths, the Brighton Town Council became the first to do so.

To Adirondack residents, at least, it should be obvious that more forest rangers are needed. Regular Enterprise readers should realize this from the weekly Ranger Reports that summarize Adirondack search-and-rescues. These missions are so frequent now — due to more hikers, especially underprepared ones, and the perceived ease of calling for help from a cellphone — that rangers have little time left for their old, important tasks of patrolling the woods and waters, talking to and educating people they meet.

But it isn’t just forest rangers that the state Department of Environmental Conservation needs to hire more of.

The DEC desperately needs more foresters, who make management plans for units of the Adirondack Forest Preserve. We remember when Gov. George Pataki came here in 1999 and announced that the DEC must complete all the Adirondack unit management plans in five years. Not quite. Just this June, 15 years after starting, DEC foresters rolled out a draft UMP for the Saranac Lakes Wild Forest. That’s a complicated one, granted, but still.

Each UMP is supposed to be updated every five years, which is nowhere near possible with the current number of foresters at DEC Region 5 in Ray Brook. Meanwhile, the state keeps buying new land to manage, and UMPs for heavily used places such as the High Peaks Wilderness need updating. For instance:

¯ Steps must be taken to accommodate increased hikers and their cars that line the sides of state Route 73 and Adirondack Loj Road. Should they be shuttled from a separate location, as the town of Keene does and wants the state to help it do more of?

¯ Should the mobbed Cascade-Porter-Pitchoff trailhead be moved, as was done this Columbus Day weekend? If so, the DEC must deal with a long-overdue issue: The trail they moved hikers to goes through private land.

¯ Should the state establish a new trail to Owls Head Mountain, a popular short hike that is now closed because the homeowners on whose private land the trail began got sick of hikers’ cars blocking them in?

¯ Should Ampersand Mountain parking be moved to the opposite side of state Route 3, as stated in the Saranac Lakes Wild Forest UMP? That side of the road is in the High Peaks Wilderness.

All these issues require a High Peaks UMP update. Really, the department ought to assign a permanent team of foresters just for this vast, popular wilderness area.

Dispatchers are other critical, often overlooked DEC staff members. They are lifelines to lost and/or injured hikers — keeping them on the phone, pinpointing their location and giving advice, directions, comfort and motivation — but they also handle every other call that comes in, from pollution spills to forest fires.

Region 5 has its own dispatch team, but the rest of the state relies on a single, deeply overburdened crew of them in Albany. A few years ago, DEC tried to abandon the Ray Brook office and centralize all dispatchers in Albany. Thankfully, it didn’t make that mistake — Adirondack dispatchers need to know the park’s vast terrain and have plenty of incidents to deal with — but the department does need more dispatchers in Albany.

The state slashed the DEC staff during the lean years after 2008 and has yet to build it back up to where it needs to be. Meanwhile, one governor after another keeps buying land to add to the Adirondack Forest Preserve. Partnerships with private agencies such as the Adirondack Mountain Club, 46ers and Student Conservation Association are good for things such as trail work and hiker education, but the state needs its own staff to plan and maintain infrastructure so people can visit its wild lands.

For now, rangers want the state to hire 40 more of them, but in the long term, their union is lobbying the Legislature to pass the Ranger Staffing Bill, which would require a ranger to be hired for every 35,000 acres the state buys. That makes sense to us — much more sense than spending hundreds of millions of tax dollars on business giveaways for supposed economic development.

But it’s not just rangers. As of now, the DEC is stretched too thin to adequately protect the environment from the people and the people from the environment.