Search and rescues down, fewer rangers patrolling

The number of search and rescues in the Adirondacks is down 27% since last summer, but there are also fewer rangers patrolling the park and 2021 is still outpacing 2019 in the number of search and rescues in the Adirondacks.

On June 1, 2020, a man in his 40s was hiking in Washington County when he had a seizure. He was wheeled out of the woods by two forest rangers. The next day three hikers got lost and were unprepared for wintery conditions while hiking up Mt. Marcy. A ranger found the group and helped them off the mountain.

In the following days, a father and son ran out of water hiking above Lake George. A father and daughter needed to be rescued while paddling near Old Forge. Groups of hikers also got lost going up Giant and Dix mountains. There was a logging injury in Saratoga County and an injured teenager in Fulton County. In all, there were ten search and rescues within the first week of June.

“Summer of 2020 as a forest ranger in the Adirondacks was extremely busy,” said Chuck Kabrehl, a union representative for rangers. “It was off the charts level of business for us.”

From Memorial Day to Labor last year, there were 167 search and rescues in and around the park. Last year set a new record, with 492 search and rescue missions statewide. The Adirondacks were especially busy, with hiker traffic surging during the pandemic.

Kaberhl, who has been a forest ranger in the Adirondack for 15 years, says that kind of demand meant they had less time for their other work.

“We definitely have gotten to a point where we’re spending a lot more time on emergency response and preparation for emergency response than we might be proactively patrolling or educating,” said Kabrehl.

Rangers got a bit of reprieve this summer, with search and rescue missions down 27%. It was a wet summer in the Adirondacks and easing COVID restrictions meant more people could travel out of state.

But even still, Kabrehl says there have been more rescues this year than there were to date in 2019. “It felt better than last year, but we were still really busy as far as historical trends go.”

“I know the stresses that they’re under,” said Basil Seggos, DEC Commissioner. “They’ve been doing extraordinary work on search and rescue.”

The NYSDEC oversees forest rangers. Along with search and rescues, rangers have also helped the state’s COVID response, they’ve traveled out west to fight wildfires and responded to storms here in New York.

“They’re there at every flood or storm no matter where we are in the state,” said Seggos. “I don’t just tip my hat at them, but I fight for them.”

Despite the statewide hiring freeze during the pandemic, the DEC secured the largest class for the upcoming Ranger School. Environmental advocates and union leaders have been pushing the state to add rangers for years.

Seggos says he’ll also press the Hochul administration for more resources for rangers in the next state budget.

“I’m going to keep advocating for increasing the force. It’s something that you can’t do overnight, unlike most hiring. It’s a deliberate process that takes time to vet, find candidates, then get them through a 6-month academy.”

Once that process is complete, Seggos says there should be an additional 40 forest rangers with postings around the state. Union rep Chuck Kabrehl says that’s great news, but the number of rangers in the Adirondacks is down 9% in just the last year.

There were 65 rangers the two DEC regions that include park in 2020 and now there are 59 rangers.

Last weekend, an injured hiker had to be airlifted off the summit of Algonquin Mountain in the Adirondack High Peaks. The incident on Saturday was one 14 search and rescues missions that rangers did in the just last week.

“We’re going to need to continue to add bodies,” said Kabrehl. “I suspect that we could double the size of the force and we’d all have plenty of work to do.”


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