High Peaks ranger numbers expected to increase, benefits might not
In a nearly 14-hour public hearing Tuesday on proposed environmental spending in the state’s 2022-23 budget, state Department of Environmental Conservation Commissioner Basil Seggos said the DEC does plan to increase the number of forest rangers in the High Peaks.
Environmental advocacy groups, representatives of the union the represents forest rangers and elected officials around the Adirondacks have called for more forest rangers for years as the state continues to add more land to the forest preserve and the number of visitors to the forest preserve continues to grow.
“The answer is yes,” Seggos said, after state Sen. Dan Stec, R-Queensbury, asked if the DEC plans to increase the number of forest rangers in the High Peaks.
Seggos said that the High Peaks see the most action for rangers, who often rescue lost and injured hikers on trails across the peaks. He said he’s been working closely with division leadership to make sure the DEC has the right number of rangers in the High Peaks, and that the newest class of rangers should “significantly” increase the ranger count here.
Seggos said Tuesday that the latest academy of rangers will have around 40 graduates this year — the largest class of rangers “ever,” he said. Seggos didn’t specify how many of those graduates will work in the High Peaks, and the DEC press office referred to the commissioner’s answer at the hearing.
Protect the Adirondacks Executive Director Peter Bauer said in a comment on the 2023 budget that there are 19 vacancies on the ranger force, 11 rangers eligible for retirement and another 11 rangers will be eligible to retire over the next year. Those numbers could bring the current forest ranger count down 22 positions.
State Sen. Michelle Hinchey, D-Saugerties, asked Seggos what the DEC is doing to recruit and retain forest rangers and make sure their benefits are competitive. She said rangers have been working toward a 20-year retirement bill and that she wants to collaborate with Seggos to make sure their benefits are as competitive as possible.
Gov. Kathy Hochul last year vetoed a bill that would have granted forest rangers and environmental conservation officers retirement after 20 years of service instead of 25, saying that changes to retirement benefits should go through a collective bargaining process rather than legislation.
Seggos again touted the large academy of forest rangers this year and said he has a team that’s constantly thinking about retention policies.
“They (forest rangers) perform an invaluable service, and we need to do everything we can to not just grow the numbers but retain them,” he said.
Stec echoed the need to make ranger benefits more competitive to better bolster retention rates. He asked Seggos if there’s an increased pay rate planned for rangers. He noted that their responsibilities have increased with the popularity of the High Peaks region.
Stec said his father is a retired forest ranger, and that when he was a ranger he made “a lot less money” than New York State Police troopers. Stec believes there’s a problem with payscale compression in the ranger force, which could contribute to people opting to join other law enforcement agencies like the State Police instead of becoming a ranger and staying a ranger.
Seggos deferred the question to the state Division of Budget and the Governor’s Office of Employee Negotiations, which handles collective bargaining related to pay grades. He repeated that the DEC is interested in having a good retention policy, but he said “some of that is under my control, some of it’s not.” He said the DEC would weigh in as needed the next time the rangers are taken up under collective bargaining.
Seggos said he thought the DEC offered good career packages to rangers that are competitive “if not more so” than what state troopers get. State Police currently have a 20-year retirement package with a starting salary of $58,443, according to the state’s website. Rangers have a 25-year retirement package with a starting salary of $59,448, according to the DEC’s website.