Well-known forest ranger moves from DEC to VIC
PAUL SMITHS — After a quarter-century with the state Department of Environmental Conservation, Forest Ranger Scott van Laer is retiring and returning to work for his alma mater, Paul Smith’s College, to lead its Visitor Interpretive Center.
Today, cross-country skiers and snowshoers at the VIC’s free day will see him learning the ropes at his new job leading the 3,000-acre trail and wilderness campus.
“It’s where it all began,” said van Laer, who graduated in 1993. “It’s going home.”
He’s already the president of the college’s alumni association.
“Half the forest ranger force went to Paul Smith’s,” he said.
Becoming the VIC director was not something he had planned on for long, but neither was retiring at 48.
“I never thought I’d retire right at first eligibility — which is 25 years,” van Laer said. “I always thought they’d bury me in uniform.”
In recent years the forest ranger job has become busier and more stressful, he said. He’s been mentally and physically worn down.
He said much of the job has changed very little in the past quarter-century, but as use of the wilderness rose year by year, the work became more consuming, too. He said sometimes it feels like backcountry use has doubled since he started. There are no “quiet times” of the season anymore; just slower times.
Rangers work 40-hour weeks, but van Laer said they are always on call for emergencies. When the phone rings in the middle of the night, he feels a responsibility to respond and help out his fellow rangers, since they are already stretched thin.
More use has created more tasks, such as writing parking tickets — he said he wrote 100 last year. He enjoys working at the trailheads but would rather be in the backcountry or helping out on rescues.
Still, he said the job is his passion.
“I’m super high on the job. I wouldn’t trade any of it for the world,” van Laer said. “I would do it all over again the exact same way.”
In 2018 he took on a role as a leader and spokesperson for the rangers’ union, the Police Benevolent Association of New York State.
He said the union position was never something he wanted, but he said the rangers need more staff and he was willing to challenge the DEC administration. Though he wasn’t the first one to advocate for increased staffing, he’s been one of the biggest cheerleaders for the cause in recent years.
“Honestly it wasn’t fun. I thought I did OK advocating,” van Laer said. “But I was actually happier just going out and doing rescues and being quiet.”
In the past year, rangers have assisted the state with its COVID-19 vaccine and testing rollouts, too.
Van Laer said he was struggling with stress around Christmas last year, and the job offer from the VIC made his decision to retire easier.
“I’m going to be doing a lot of the stuff I really enjoy doing,” he said. “I’m still going to be on the trail. I’m still going to be talking to the public.”
Late in 2020, then-VIC General Manager Andy Testo left and there was room for van Laer to join.
For a while he pitched his vision for the VIC to Paul Smith’s College administrators, and eventually they chose to hire him.
Van Laer hopes make the “I” in VIC stand for “interpretive” — as it has — as well as “instructive.”
He wants to add more programs on outdoor recreation education, which as a forest ranger he said he’s seen a “tremendous need” for.
Workshops on Leave No Trace principles, rock climbing and navigation he could teach himself.
He also sees the VIC’s 3,000 acres of land as a potential laboratory for adaptive management pilot programs, a place to test the recommendations coming out of the High Peaks Committee to deal with issues such as crowded hiking paths and trail erosion.
He also looks forward to working on the VIC’s Nordic skiing trails.
“We have better snow than Mount Van Hoevenberg,” van Laer said, referencing the large state Nordic center near Lake Placid. “We always get the first snow, and we always get the last snow.”
Van Laer will start at the VIC in May, but he’s already working there as he winds down his forest ranger duties to the state.
Last month Saranac Lake students in the North Country Homeschooling group had to chose someone to do a video report on for a history project. Oliver Halasz choose van Laer. The 11-year-old exchanges artsy creations with van Laer’s wife Michale Glennon and was interested in reading about her husband’s backcountry work in the newspapers. He researched van Laer and interviewed him about his life. Van Laer even lent Oliver his ranger jacket for the video, which Oliver’s mom Sunita uploaded Wednesday.
“Oliver really likes Marvel superheroes, and Scott is the closest human being to a Marvel superhero that we know!” Sunita wrote in a Facebook message.
Playing the part of the forest ranger and standing in the woods, Oliver talked about van Laer’s life, his childhood, exciting search-and-rescue stories and little-known information about the man.
“I loved it,” van Laer said.
The video can be viewed here: https://bit.ly/3tCnqO7.
Oliver, as van Laer, said he lives on a farm with horses and fainting goats. Van Laer once co-owned a racehorse named Tin Cup Chalice that made headlines during a winning streak in the late 2000s.
Van Laer said he has many memories from his years as a forest ranger, but it is search-and-rescues that stand out to him. He’s been on hundreds of them. Some are quick; others last for weeks. He was the ranger who found the bodies of Australian Army Capt. Paul McKay and Bangor resident Bruce Waite, but he said it is the people they’ve never found that he thinks about the most.
“I know how difficult that is on the families, so those are the ones that kind of linger with me,” van Laer said.
In his free time he’s taken up aviation archeology in the Adirondacks. This is searching for plane crashes in the forest, instead of people. Oliver talks about this in his video. Van Laer said there have been around 200 plane crashes in the Adirondacks.
This started as part of his job. Rangers had mapped out crash sites because hikers would find them and report them to rangers. Rangers needed to know if these were new or old crashes. But when van Laer took on the job, the list and map were not very precise, as they were created before GPS.
He would take time to walk into sites and mark the GPS coordinates. In the process he would learn about the crashes and the people involved.
Van Laer said he may publish a book on this one day.