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DEC commissioner ‘couldn’t be happier’ with staff governor would add, despite lawmakers’ concern

No mention of more rangers in 47 proposed hires

State Department of Environmental Conservation Commissioner Basil Seggos speaks at the first-ever I Love NY Oktoberfest at Whiteface Mountain Ski Center in Wilmington on Oct. 4, 2019. (Enterprise photo — Elizabeth Izzo)

State Department of Environmental Conservation Commissioner Basil Seggos, during a public hearing on environmental conservation funding Monday, said he “could not be happier” with plans for his department outlined in the governor’s Executive Budget proposal.

The more than eight-hour joint legislative hearing in Albany also included testimony from the heads of other state agencies, as well as comments from representatives of groups such as the New York Farm Bureau, Adirondack Council, Adirondack Mountain Club and Protect the Adirondacks.

The responsibilities of the DEC continue to grow as the state continues to buy land, invest in water infrastructure and combat climate change. Some state lawmakers expressed concern that the department’s staffing levels may not be sufficient.

Cuomo, as part of his Executive Budget, has proposed the addition of 47 new DEC staffers. The governor’s budget book says those new staffers would be added to “implement the Climate Leadership & Community Protection Act and the Resiliency and Economic Development Initiative.”

The budget does not appear to mention the addition of more forest rangers, which the rangers’ union, Adirondack town boards and green groups have called for in recent years.

More staff needed?

Without explicitly mentioning forest rangers or environmental conservation officers, Environmental Conservation Committee Chair Assemblyman Steve Englebright, D-Setauket, said he believed the Legislature would be receptive to a conversation about more funding for DEC staffing.

“I would note that you’ve lost almost a third of the staff in your agency over the last decade, and your obligations have increased,” he said. “We’re now looking at taking on the world, literally, in terms of the climate change challenge. I would urge you to take another look at that aspect of the budget, the personnel aspect. I think we would be receptive to a conversation to add personnel. But I don’t believe we can do that if you say you don’t need anybody and that everything is swell.”

“The charge for the DEC is growing, and rightfully so,” said Sen. John Liu, D-Queens. “Is there really enough staffing, even with the additional 47 full-time equivalents?”

Seggos said he “honestly could not be happier” with the governor’s budget and its 47 new DEC staff members.

Cuomo has proposed a $33 billion plan to combat climate change and a 10% bump in DEC spending, from $1.44 billion this year to $1.58 billion next year.

That increase in DEC spending would come from “growth from the Clean Water Infrastructure Act, the proposed Restore Mother Nature Bond Act, and increases in other capital program spending,” according to a budget book released by the governor’s office. The Restore Mother Nature program, which Cuomo introduced in his State of the State address earlier this month, would be partially funded by a $3 billion bond act he is asking lawmakers and voters to approve.

Cuomo also proposed $300 million for the Environmental Protection Fund, some of which is earmarked for additional trail crews and to help Essex County establish a hiker shuttle system along Route 73.

“The additional positions you have, I would hope some of them would go to my absolute favorite DEC people, the forest rangers,” Sen. Betty Little, R-Queensbury, told Seggos Monday.

Adirondack Council Director of Government Relations Kevin Chlad said rangers “have become overwhelmed by the strong demand placed on their stagnant staffing numbers.

“Most search and rescue operations occur in the Adirondacks and Catskills, and fall upon a select group of highly trained individuals that answer their call to duty no matter the time of day or weather conditions,” he said. “They are overworked, often conducting multiple operations in a single weekend. This is a symptom of a much larger problem that is addressed by following the best management practices of wilderness management, but adding more traditional forest ranger staffing and other DEC staff including foresters, planners and biologists, is an important part of the solution.”

Delineation of duties

Little asked that the DEC put together a detailed delineation of duties outlining what responsibilities would lie with the forest rangers and what would lie with ECOs.

The DEC requested to consolidate the forest ranger and ECO civil service titles in 2018, a measure some considered to be a way of equalizing the historic pay disparity between the two titles. That consolidation was expected to go into effect this past April, but it met immediate backlash from some ECO union reps, who voiced concerns about rangers being asked to do parts of their job. Then later it met opposition from union reps for forest rangers, who said they’d rather have more rangers added than have their pay increased.

“(The forest rangers) want to be the people to go to fires, who go to lost people and lost animals,” Little said. “I would ask you just to continue that.”

The DEC told the Albany Times Union newspaper this past 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 tell the Enterprise in December whether that document had been completed and directed a reporter to file a Freedom of Information Law request. The Enterprise did so in December and was told by the DEC this month that the department was still processing the request and would likely complete its process by Feb. 14.

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.”