Doing more with less—again

Photograph by Nancie Battaglia

s the first half of 2020 has shown, New York State Forest Rangers are blessed, and burdened, with a wide-ranging portfolio. In February and early March, rangers managed an influx of winter hikers on popular High Peaks trails, including one March weekend where cars on the Adirondack Loj Road were parked bumper to bumper. “I’ve never seen our trailheads so busy in winter,” says Scott van Laer, a ranger based in the High Peaks who also serves as a union representative.

During the same time period, rangers performed difficult backcountry searches, calling in a State Police helicopter to aid in a successful effort to find a missing woman near Mount Marcy, and performing an overnight operation to rescue a pair of hikers, one who died of hypothermia, in the Dix Range.

Meanwhile, numerous rangers assigned to the Adirondacks were busy aiding New York’s coronavirus response downstate, with several becoming in­fected themselves. “They’re dealing with COVID-19,” says Michael Barrett, executive director of the Adirondack Mountain Club, “because they’re familiar with the state’s incident command system, and many municipalities are not.”

Yet in the midst of this frenzied activity, taking place during what’s supposed to be their slow season, rank-and-file rangers received a familiar message from the state: Help is not on the way.

The novel coronavirus saw to that.

At the beginning of the year, van Laer says the Police Benevolent Association of New York State, which represents the forest rangers, had been asking the legislature for 40 additional ranger positions. The union has argued for years that the jump in recreational use on public lands, especially the recent influx of 10 to 12 million visitors per year to the Adirondacks, has spread the ranger force dangerously thin.

Coming into 2020, it looked like they might finally net an increase in staff, says Assemblyman Dan Stec, a Republican from Queensbury whose father was a forest ranger, and who has long been a legislative advocate for the force. “There were a lot of people on the same page,” Stec says. “A very diverse spectrum of groups and individuals were encouraging more staffing for the rangers, including myself. I think it had a fighting chance this year. I don’t know about 40, but an increased number for sure”—as many as 10 in the High Peaks, where Stec and others say they’re needed most.

The pandemic and the resultant budget crisis, however, killed any chance to expand the ranks. “I had no problem pounding the table three months ago and saying, ‘I want more staff,’” Stec says. “But when the state can’t keep up with the amount of people applying for unemployment, and we’ve been told there will be a $10- to $15-billion shortfall, it’s hard for me or anybody to pound the table and say, ‘We need more staff today.’”

It’s wait till next year, again.

“There aren’t enough rangers today, and there weren’t enough rangers yesterday,” says David Gibson, managing partner of the conservation group Adirondack Wild. “There have been ups and downs, but essentially it’s remained static for 50 years.”

Indeed, the ranger force was understaffed more than three decades ago under Governor Cuomo, and the union says it’s understaffed now under Governor Cuomo.

Louis Curth knows this well. The retired career ranger authored a comprehensive history of the force in 1987. Curth’s book tells how a scrappy bunch of woodsmen hired to fight fires in the state Forest Preserve in 1885 evolved over a century into a group of tough, determined, jacks-of-all-trades who not only battled blazes but tended trails, protected pines from larcenous loggers and saved stranded hunters and hikers. They organized local community members in conservation and rescue efforts, and even went to schools dressed as Smokey the Bear to educate children on preventing forest fires.

But even as Curth was working on the state-sponsored book in 1985, Governor Mario Cuomo’s administration proposed cutting 50 ranger positions, which would have left the state with well under 100. “They had already whittled down the ranger force by attrition, and you can just imagine that this was the end of the line,” Curth says today. “I’m sure somebody in Albany had some kind of devious idea that they were going to get rid of their rangers because they were too independent.”

A public outcry scrapped the plan and saved the positions. Turned out people really liked forest rangers.

They still do. Late last year, Albany officials briefly floated the idea of merging the 134-person ranger force, which includes 108 field rangers, with the state Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) police as an “efficiency” measure.

The idea died when environmental groups got wind of it and lobbied the legislature. “We said, ‘Look, you shouldn’t merge them,’” Barrett says. “The rangers have a unique culture that benefits everyone. I didn’t see any resistance or counter-argument to that.”

That unique culture makes for “a wide-ranging skill set,” van Laer says, one that keeps state forest rangers perpetually busy. The record-setting numbers of recreational users have led to five straight years with more than 300 search-and-rescue missions, with at least 100 a year in the High Peaks. Climate disasters such as Hurricane Irene in 2011 and Sandy in 2012, and the manhunt in the wake of the 2015 Dannemora prison break, called on the force’s aforementioned incident command expertise. Wearing their law-enforcement hats, rangers help to police timber theft, poaching, trail damage, parking problems, campsite disputes and people who feed bears. They also engage the public in less confrontational situations, schooling both backcountry and frontcountry users on how to enjoy the wilderness without spoiling it.

They do all this while adhering to their original mission: They put out fires, literally. And not just in New York. Forest rangers participate in a federal program that ships fire-control experts to national hot spots, and they’ve fought the devastating western-state wildfires of the last several years.

“We get federal funding for it, and it saves state taxpayers money,” van Laer says. “We love that program. It’s not just about fires. It’s every natural disaster. We’re used not just in the Adirondacks, but anywhere in the U.S.”

All of this work comes at a cost. With more visitors lured to the Adirondacks by the state’s successful tourism promotion campaigns and social media, and more public lands to patrol thanks to the state’s aggressive wilderness acquisition program, the force gets spread thinner and thinner.

“These are extremely dedicated people,” van Laer says of his fellow rangers. “That rescue call is what we live for. But we’re people. We do burn out. We’re hanging by a thread now.”

For van Laer, the solution has always been a simple equation: More area to cover plus more users should equal more rangers. New York’s budgetary math keeps coming up with a different answer, and the ranger numbers over time have stayed flat.

“When I talk to the legislature,” van Laer says, “they’re like, ‘Yes, we want more rangers.’ But when it’s time to go to the governor, every year the budget comes out, we don’t get it.”

Van Laer believes the problem lies less with Cuomo than with the DEC. “I think they’re just unwilling to give in to a union request,” he says.

The DEC tells a different story, saying it’s committed to ensuring forest ranger staffing remains at high levels, and that “at no time have ranger staffing levels put the hiking community or the natural resources at risk.”

It’s true that after several years of skipped training academies following the recession of 2008, the DEC graduated 56 fresh-faced rangers from the state’s training academy in the past six years, including 14 in December.

“I give the department and the director credit for that,” van Laer says. But he adds that the new blood was just enough to replace a wave of retirements and didn’t beef up overall numbers.

The DEC also believes new technologies, such as drones, are helping rangers work more efficiently than before. Van Laer disagrees, calling drones “overhyped. We haven’t had a single find from a drone in the last three years.”

Technology can’t replace boots on the ground, he says. “You need people.”

With more staffing, Barrett believes rangers can be more proactive, spending time in backcountry outposts where they can survey and anticipate problems, and getting out into the community to educate hikers before they get into trouble. As things stand, in the summer busy season, the understaffed force is often tied to their vehicles so they can access major trailheads for the inevitable rescue calls.

More staffing could also lead to a more diverse ranger force that looks more like the state it serves, according to Curth. “You look around, and the ranger force is lily white,” he says. “That’s got to change.”

Debates over new hires must now wait for another time, one where coronavirus doesn’t rule our lives. “I’m frustrated,” Stec says, “but what can you do? You’ve got to play the hand that’s dealt to you. And right now, we’ve got a generational challenge in front of us.”

The assemblyman hopes the issue is back on the table in 2021.

So does van Laer, though he won’t count on anything. “I get it,” he says. “Every year is a bad budget year.”

And this year, he concedes, it’s actually true.    

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