Rangers oppose pay raise, call for more staff
SARANAC LAKE — Forest rangers say they now oppose a proposed pay raise, and are asking the state for more staff instead.
The request comes more than one year after the state Department of Environmental Conservation announced a plan to consolidate the forest ranger civil service title with the Environmental Conservation Officer title, while retaining each division’s current responsibilities.
The change was billed as a way of streamlining operations. It was also widely considered to be an effort by DEC officials to close the pay gap between rangers and ECOs.
Forest rangers earn a base salary of $59,448 after completing training, while ECOs are hired at $62,228 after training, according to the DEC website.
The proposed title consolidation spurred concerns from some ECOs, who felt the change may give forest rangers more law enforcement responsibilities that ECOs would typically handle. The DEC told the Albany Times Union newspaper in September that the department was drafting a guidance document to outline the delineation of duties between ECOs and rangers. DEC Public Information Officer Jomo Miller declined to say whether that document had been completed and directed a reporter to file a Freedom of Information Law request. Forest ranger Scott van Laer, speaking in his role as a union delegate, said the rangers had seen the document and “have no issues with it.”
The Police Benevolent Association of New York — the union which represents forest rangers, ECOs, State Police and State Park officers — issued a press release Thursday calling for the state to use funding allocated to bridge the ranger-ECO pay gap to hire more forest rangers.
“A competitive salary is important for recruitment and should be revisited in the future, without a title change,” the union said.
Title change status unclear
The ranger-ECO title consolidation was expected to take effect this past April, but has not been implemented yet.
Asked the current status of the title change, a DEC spokesman did not answer the question, instead issuing a statement the department also released nearly one year ago regarding the background of the proposal.
“New York State Forest Rangers have been seeking a title upgrade for several years and the DEC has been working with the Department of Civil Service to support an upgrade of the Ranger title,” Miller said. “Because Civil Service encourages consolidation of title series when appropriate, it was proposed that DEC ECOs and Forest Rangers utilize the same title while maintaining separate divisions and responsibilities. Forest Rangers and ECOs receive similar training and perform similar duties and functions but were not in similar civil service title series.
“To be clear, this is not a merger of the two divisions, but rather a move to ensure both divisions are treated equally in the Civil Service system. Much like other shared titles in the Civil Service system, for example, DEC engineers and biologists share similar titles, but can work in a number of different divisions.”
Calls for more staff continue
There are currently 135 forest rangers stationed throughout the state, according to the PBA union. There are more than 250 ECOs.
While they both fall under the Office of Public Protection, forest rangers and ECOs function in different divisions. Forest rangers are in the Division of Forest Protection and ECOs are in the Division of Law Enforcement. Rangers and ECOs perform different duties, and boast different cultures within their ranks — cultures informed by two separate histories.
ECOs have a legacy that stems back to 1880. The division started with eight “Fish and Game protectors” appointed by then-Gov. Alonzo Cornell. Forest rangers came on the scene five years later, and their primary responsibility initially was fighting fires as Fire Wardens. The rangers primarily operate in the Adirondack and Catskills parks, rural areas with large swaths of state Forest Preserve lands. They conduct search and rescue missions in the backcountry and fight fires on Forest Preserve lands. ECOs have jurisdiction over both public and private lands throughout the state. They enforce environmental law and primarily operate in metropolitan areas.
Rangers have long argued that the gradual expansion of their ranks over time has not kept up with the influx of hikers visiting the Adirondack and Catskills parks.
“The amount of public use in New York warrants a ranger staffing level more comparable to that of a national park,” the union said. “Yellowstone is 2.2 million acres in size and has a staff of 330 permanent rangers. In the 6 million acre Adirondack Park, there are just 50 rangers. In 1970s the average acreage a forest ranger was responsible for patrolling was 28,516 acres. Today that number has ballooned to a whopping 53,752 acres! Forest rangers now respond to more than 350 search and rescue incidents a year.
“It’s wonderful to live in a state with so much public land that it necessitates a ranger force. It is a small, unique and elite force that must remain as a standalone division of the DEC. However, it must be strengthened. Rangers currently spend thousands of dollars of their own money each year on rescue gear and personal protective equipment.”
In a statement, Adirondack Council Executive Director Willie Janeway backed rangers’ call for more staffing.
“The Adirondack Council supports the Forest Rangers’ decision to remain separate and distinct from Environmental Conservation Officers as well as their call for additional rangers in the force,” Janeway said.