DEC graduates 38 forest rangers
LAKE PLACID — The state Department of Environmental Conservation welcomed 38 new forest rangers to its ranks on Friday.
Applause, tears and inspirational words filled Friday’s graduation ceremony at the Lake Placid Conference Center, which was attended by hundreds of people. Forest rangers and state officials called the graduation “a miracle” and “a dream come true” — not only was this the DEC’s first ranger-only academy in 30 years, but the new graduating class is also the largest in the department’s history, according to DEC Commissioner Basil Seggos. And with the 38 new rangers, Seggos said the DEC’s forest ranger force is now larger than ever.
Friday’s graduation was long-awaited by environmental advocacy groups, the union that represents forest rangers and elected officials around the Adirondacks that have called for more forest rangers for years as the state continues to add more land to the forest preserve and as the number of visitors to the forest preserve continues to grow. Numerous state officials made appearances at Friday’s event, including Commissioner Seggos, state Sen. Dan Stec, R-Queensbury, state Assemblymen Matt Simpson, R-Horicon, and Billy Jones, D-Chateaugay Lake, and officials from the state Olympic Regional Development Authority, including ORDA CEO Mike Pratt.
Seggos said in February said that the state planned to send more rangers to work in the High Peaks. On Friday, he said that the “greatest need” for more rangers is in the Adirondacks. While the park will see a “significant increase” in rangers with the graduates, according to Seggos, he said the DEC is still working out exactly how many of them will serve in the Adirondacks.
For forest rangers, by forest rangers
The 38 forest ranger graduates went through 28 weeks of training at three different SUNY college of Environmental Science and Forestry campuses, taking courses that ranged from 2 hours to 11 weeks long to complete a total of 1,100 hours of basic school training. The training was meant to be tough, Lt. Joseph LaPierre said during a speech to graduates on Friday. The DEC played a video at the graduation that showed recruits practicing water rescues in rapids, breaking out of bindings after being pushed into a swimming pool, scaling cliffsides and training for helicopter hoist operations.
“You overcame many obstacles,” LaPierre told the graduates. “And now you wear the forest ranger patch.”
This year’s academy was developed by forest rangers, and Director of Forest Protection John Solan hopes that the curriculum could be used to train rangers “for years to come.” Solan named Captain William Giraud, LaPierre and Lt. Brian Dubay as leaders in developing the academy — he said they were looped into planning almost two years before the academy started. In the spring of 2021, Solan said forest rangers Mark Brand, Alexander Virkler and Lt. Ryan Wickens joined planning efforts for the academy.
LaPierre said that more than 30 municipal, county and state agencies — including the New York State Police and the state Park Police — also assisted with instruction for the academy.
Swiss Army ranger
Seggos called forest rangers “the state’s Swiss Army knife.” Rangers interact with hundreds of state lands visitors, providing educational information, caring for lost and injured hikers, fighting fires, running incident commands and supporting law enforcement deployments across the state. Forest rangers are “full-fledged” New York State Police officers, according to Seggos, authorized to enforce all state laws and charged with the additional duties of carrying custody of state lands.
Rangers’ jobs won’t get any easier as climate change increases the frequency of natural disasters, Seggos said. Flood, drought and fire events are testing first responders across the country “like never before,” he said, and in his seven years with the DEC, he’s responded to countless disasters like these and seen fear “swallow” communities in the face of them.
“In the midst of the chaos, as a leader I can’t tell you how reassuring it is when the rangers arrive,” Seggos said. “With them, I know that we’ll always find a path forward.”
Seggos gave the new rangers a few pieces of advice: First, keep training. Second, make society better. And third: “Never feel like you’re alone in this job.”
After the graduation, Seggos told reporters that “mental toughness” is part of the forest rangers’ training. But at the same time, he said, the DEC is working to “destigmatize” mental health among its law enforcement.
This was one of the first forest ranger academies to have an “embedded mental health team,” according to Seggos.
He said the DEC encouraged all of the forest ranger recruits to talk about mental health during the academy — rangers are first responders, sometimes answering fatal or traumatic calls. During his speech to graduates, Seggos told the new rangers to rely on each other and ask for help from their “brothers and sisters” when they need it.
Graduating forest ranger and class president Neilson Snye, of Tupper Lake, stressed the importance of this support during his speech to fellow graduates — he lost his mom and his aunt to cancer while attending the ranger academy this year.
“Probably the most difficult time I’ll experience in my life,” he said. “Though I lost family, I gained 37 brothers and sisters. I know I would not have made it through this without you, and I thank you for being here for me and our fellow rangers.”
Seggos, LaPierre and Solan saved the biggest thank-yous of their speeches for the friends and families of forest rangers. They said that families are a crucial support system for first responders.
“Behind every good ranger is a support network,” Solan told the crowd. “All of us have needed someone to let the dog out because we were working long hours on a search or a fire, someone to plow the driveway for us because we were out on snowmobiles in a storm, or just someone simply to speak with and talk to after rescuing a seriously injured person or retrieving a deceased person from a remote piece of state land. Whether you knew it or not, you’re now part of the greater ranger family.”