LAKE PLACID - The state Department of Environmental Conservation has decided to beef up its backcountry presence this summer by reinstating some assistant forest rangers and creating a new backcountry steward program.
About a dozen assistant forest rangers are expected to be placed throughout the Adirondacks while up to 26 backcountry stewards will be located throughout New York.
Prior to being cut last year, the assistant forest ranger program employed roughly 20 people in the Adirondack Park and about 30 statewide on a seasonal basis from about late May until early October. The program cost about $400,000 to run annually.
It is unclear where the DEC got money to reinstate part of the program. DEC spokesman Dave Winchell confirmed that these programs would be in existence this summer but was unable to provide details as of press time.
The backcountry stewards will be Student Conservation Association interns, overseen by the DEC's Division of Lands and Forests. SCA is a federally funded program that provides college-aged students with low-paying, conservation-related work. In the Adirondacks, SCA crews have traditionally performed trail work duties under the supervision of the DEC.
The assistant forest ranger program will be run through the DEC's Division of Forest Protection and will be managed by forest rangers.
Adirondack Mountain Club Executive Director Neil Woodworth said that the backcountry stewards will be "more like backcountry educators." He compared them to the Adirondack Mountain Club's Ridge Runner program that existed in the 1970s.
"The assistant forest ranger receives training more analogous to the training of a forest ranger, and they have more of a forest ranger mission backcountry than these backcountry stewards," Woodworth said.
Woodworth said the Adirondack Mountain Club will help train the backcountry stewards in Leave No Trace principals and simple trail work.
The assistant forest ranger program has played a key role in helping backcountry recreation users since the late 1970s. It was dropped by DEC last spring because of the severe budget cuts the agency incurred.
"I would love to have the money to have the assistant forest rangers in their original number and geographic location," Woodworth said. "I thought it was a highly effective program. We don't know how well the backcountry steward program will work. We'll see."
In addition to educating the recreation users in the backcountry, assistant forest rangers also help forest rangers with search-and-rescue missions, wildland fire fighting and in enforcing regulations.
Many considered assistant forest rangers critical in high-use areas such as the High Peaks Wilderness, Lows Lake, the St. Regis Canoe Area and the Moose River Plains.
"Last year was a travesty because it was cut to absolutely zero on behalf of the DEC," said former High Peaks forest ranger Pete Fish, of Keene, who was instrumental in creating the assistant forest ranger program. "I think restoring a green presence is vital. ... All in all, I think it's good for the health and safety of the public and the environment as well."