Wednesday, July 19, 2017

NYS Forest Ranger Ranks Stagnant While Workload Rises

Forest Ranger Rob Praczkajlo covers the district just east of the High Peaks Wilderness, namely the towns of Jay, Elizabethtown, and part of North Hudson. Due to the high rate of search and rescue operations in the adjacent High Peaks, he is just as likely to be found there as he is patrolling his own district.

The High Peaks district had more than 100 emergency incidents in 2015 and they do not occur in a vacuum. They are not handled exclusively by the half dozen rangers stationed there. Rangers from all parts of the Adirondacks, and the Forest Preserve they protect, are affected by the drain from so many incidents. The following chronicles one week in July for Ranger Praczkajlo.

On Monday, July 3,  Rob was scheduled to work the 4 p.m. to midnight shift, which often has him fielding calls from people whose loved ones are overdue from their outdoor excursions during the day. Most of these calls work themselves out and don’t result in a significant response or incident report but still require significant time speaking to concerned loved ones on the phone,  driving to trailheads and checking register books. Working those hours helps resolve potential issues early and provides for a quick initial response if needed. It is the “problem solving” shift where you sometimes field calls like, “he went hiking in the Adirondacks, on the mountain….” or take questions such as “has his car passed through the gate and left the park yet?” And my personal favorite, “Can you call him on the park’s P.A. system and check on them?”

Rob began his tour about 30 minutes early. He was requested to respond to the “flume” in Wilmington, part of the High Peaks district, as soon as possible to help search for a missing swimmer. A popular cliff jumping and swimming hole at low water. During periods of high water, the series of waterfalls creates dangerous currents and hydraulics that should be avoided. He searched the waters with nine other rangers until about midnight without success. The Wilmington Fire Department and the New York State Troopers were also part of the coordinated effort. Rangers from the southern Adirondacks, as far away as Queensbury, would continue the search through the night.

On July 4, Rob was back at the flume by 6 a.m., one of a dozen rangers assigned to the incident that day. Searching this section of the West Branch of the Ausable River requires caution and expertise that the Forest Rangers are trained for, and with which they have experience. By morning, the search area was narrowed down to a particular pool, where rangers built a complex rope system, a telfer lower on a high line, to safely search the area below the falls with a raft. That afternoon the body of the missing swimmer was recovered. A sad ending, but closure was brought to a heartbroken family.

Once the mission was completed at the flume, some of the rangers immediately got out of their wet suits and whitewater gear and drove to the Ausable Club to help search for a missing hiker who had already spent an unplanned night in the woods. Rob was at the command post there by 5 p.m. Richard Maxwell, 49, was missing from his hike the previous day, July 3. Rangers were not notified until July 4 that he was overdue.

The lack of an adequate itinerary had rangers initially checking trailheads all over the Adirondacks. Once his vehicle was located at the Ausable Club, also part of the High Peaks Ranger district, a search response was quickly initiated. Trailhead register data showed that Bear Den, Dial and Nippletop mountains were his planned destinations. Trails were checked, and rangers hiked the same planned loop as well as to the summit of Pinnacle and the drainages that form Gill and Gravestone brooks.

The search effort paused around midnight on July 4 with Mr. Maxwell having to spend a second unplanned night in the wilderness.  A much larger response, with 19 rangers, began at 6 a.m. on July 5. State Police aviation was utilized to insert four separate ranger crews at interior locations. Ranger Praczkajlo was teamed with Ranger Glen Bronson. Their assignment was to search the south drainages coming out of the ponds at Elk Pass that flow into Elk Lake.

They were able to take ATVs in several miles before beginning the search up the steep rocky brook on foot. At around 10 a.m. they made voice contact with the subject. Fifteen minutes later they were with the subject. After completing a medical assessment they determined they could hike him out. Mr. Maxwell was driven back to his vehicle at the Ausable Club. After the successful mission, Rob was able to sign out of service at 5 p.m.

 Forest Ranger Rob PraczkaijloOn Thursday July 6, Ranger Praczkajlo got a reprieve and was able to perform equipment maintenance, primarily drying ropes and rafts from the recovery at the Flume. At the end of the day all equipment was inspected, packaged and made ready for a future deployment. The following day, on Friday July 7, he finally got a chance to patrol in his district, a hike up Poke-O-Moonshine Mountain, meeting briefly with the fire tower steward to go over some stewardship issues.

The next day, Saturday July 8, Ranger Praczkajlo was dispatched to search for a missing kayaker on Kiwassa Lake in Franklin County just as he was beginning his tour at 9 a.m. Some of the missing man’s equipment, including his kayak, were found on the water early that morning.

Utilizing much of the same gear from Monday’s search, Rob was one of eight rangers involved, along with the New York State Troopers and the Saranac Lake Fire Department. The search operations were halted for the day at 8:30 p.m. without locating the missing man. Rob was then dispatched to the Garden parking area for a carry out of a subject in the High Peaks Wilderness who had sustained a head injury in a fall. Fortunately the injured subject was able to walk out on his own, avoiding the labor intensive operation. Ranger Praczkajlo was able to sign out of service at 10:30 p.m.

On Sunday July 9, Ranger Praczkajlo began his day at 5 a.m. and was again on Kiwassa Lake conducting an underwater search for the missing kayaker. The man’s body was found in approximately 25 feet of water at 11:30 a.m. It was the sixth drowning in the North Country in a week.

The work schedule of Ranger Praczkajlo chronicled here is not unusual. Unfortunately it is becoming fairly typical for a NYS Forest Ranger to work this many hours and respond to so many search and rescue incidents. The number of people recreating in the outdoors is exploding, particularly in the High Peaks Wilderness. This is taxing the entire Forest Ranger force, whose staffing levels have remained stagnant for decades, despite increases in use and over one million acres added to their patrol responsibilities.

While people debate what to do about overcrowding, overuse and overtaxing the rangers who cover the High Peaks, they must realize that the frequent occurrence of these incidents has a domino effect on the entire Adirondack Park, as well as the state. Rangers statewide are hiking less for patrol, doing fewer campground checks, delivering fewer public presentations in order to keep pace with emergency response. Rangers from other districts are constantly pulled into the High Peaks for emergency response and the areas they cover are suffering as well.

As the state celebrates the 125th anniversary of the Adirondack Park, we simply do not have enough Forest Rangers to provide the appropriate level of stewardship for the High Peaks Wilderness. The solution seems obvious: increase Forest Ranger staffing levels to the capacity where their other missions, primarily state land stewardship, can still occur. The current staffing levels are untenable.

Photos: Above, a recent recovery at the flume; and below, Ranger Rob Praczkaijlo.


Scott van Laer

Scott van Laer has been a forest ranger for 21 years and is currently a delegate for PBA of NYS, the union which represents forest rangers.




33 Responses

  1. Pete Nelson Pete says:

    Amen to this. Facts on the ground… this has to be a spending priority and we all should support it.

  2. Jim S says:

    I started hiking in the Adirondacks in the 80’s and was educated about what to wear, what to carry, leave no trace, hiking through puddles on trail and was treated for a nasty gash on my leg in a very important 20 minute conversation with ranger Pete Fish. If there were more rangers many of the problems being discussed about overcrowding and abuse of the preserve would not be as severe as they are now. Tell your state representatives we need more rangers.

    • Taras says:

      Ditto. I started hiking in the High Peaks in 1979 and met Ranger Fish several times. He was the roving teacher/comedian/EMT/enforcer (I never screwed up to witness his enforcer side). If I didn’t see him in person, I’d see his name in the register indicating “Patrol”. Many years later (~2002) I met him on the trail (retired and doing volunteer trail maintenance) and it was like meeting an old friend.

      High Peaks resources and hikers would definitely benefit from the presence of more rangers and AFRs. Not enough rangers and too much work is bad for rangers, the land, and the people who visit it. NYS needs step up and make it right.

    • Boreas says:

      Back in the “old days”, at least to me, Pete was the face of the Ranger force in the Adirondacks. He certainly wasn’t the only Ranger, but his feet were on the trail so much of the time that it seemed like there was a 50/50 chance of running into him somewhere when I hiked in the HPW. Perhaps he was following me? But his presence in the backcountry was reassuring and at the same time kept you on your toes. You never wanted to have the ‘cotton conversation’ with him. But I always had in the back of my mind the face of the person that would likely be involved in my rescue and did my best to avoid that situation.

      The presence of Rangers keep safety and responsibility constantly present somewhere in the back of your mind with both preparation and performance on the trail. You simply don’t have that constant mental reinforcement without them. I daresay there may be 46rs now that completed the 46 without ever running into a Ranger. How sad they missed this important aspect of backcountry education. Sadder still that the problem is ongoing and getting worse.

      Let your legislators know that Rangers aren’t simply emergency tools, but rather an integral part of the backcountry experience and the face of responsible backcountry behavior. And KEEP reminding them until ‘feet on the ground’ is a reality again. And just because you are not a NYS resident, you can still let the governor know how you feel. Perhaps legislators will pay more attention to tourists than residents. After all, you are the people they are a-courtin’.

      • Paul says:

        How could Pete have been following you? I am sure he was following me. If you did something wrong he would step out from behind a tree and begin to educate you. I heard him half-joke with a few nitwits that had a tent in a lean to and were burning a fresh evergreen (this was right next to the opalescent river – seriously) that they were maybe looking to get “locked up”. As he is talking to these guys their buddy shows up who was down washing his dishes directly in the river – spaghetti floating down stream. I thought he might have a heart attack! I am not sure how many other rules they were breaking! We were just hiking by and had to stay close to see how that turned out. He let them off with multiple warnings!

        • Boreas says:

          Paul,
          I’m sure he preferred to spend his days outside patrolling rather than in a courtroom with those nitwits. It isn’t about the fines after all – it is about getting the message across loud & clear. He is good at that – even today.

  3. Scott says:

    This has been going on for years. Nobody seems to care. The DEC is suppose to protect its state lands and protect the people using them. The forest ranger division is the only division in the state assigned this specific mission as their core responsibility. Any other agency would increase the numbers of officers as the geographic area covered increased or the number if people to protect increased or the number of problems increased. When the state forest ranger title was created in 1912 the rangers were supposed to have full police duties relative to the protection of state land and for decades now they are so understaffed and overworked they can hardly do any patrol when things get busy.

  4. Kevin "MudRat" MacKenzie Kevin says:

    Excellent article Scott…as usual. You are all doing an incredible job under difficult circumstances. I’m around several of you enough to know about the workload issues, but reading this puts it into an even better context. Thanks for writing this.

  5. common sense says:

    great article Scott, the only thing missing is the story of Rob’s family. About how he misses every Holiday weekend with his family, because that’s when he is needed to be “on the job”. No more acreage should be purchased until we can get more Rangers!!

  6. Justin Farrell says:

    Great article, Scott!
    Kudos for speaking up as an employee of the NYSDEC!
    I’m curious why more members of the DEC do not do the same. Not just on the understaffed issue, but on other important park related issues as well. And this has been going on for years. I know of only one other DEC employee who often shares his thoughts on a particular important issue, yet still refuses to admit publicly that he works for the DEC. I know big brother is always watching, but I just find it a little odd why so many DEC employees wish to remain silent on issues that are often directly related to the need for more DEC personnel.
    Thoughts?

  7. Scott says:

    From what I read from the new DEC commissioner Seggos in a DEC Conservationist magazine a few months ago, Seggos seems to understand how important state forest rangers are for state land protection and public protection. Seggos seems pretty motivated and dedicated and squared away so I would be very surprised if Seggos doesn’t make increasing ranger staffing and budget his top priority. And as much as Gov Cuomo always touts his state land and environmental protection legacy I am surprised Cuomo hasn’t personally taken an interest in increasing rangers staffing. Everything gets political but for a governor that wants to be popular it seems everybody knows we need more rangers and everybody wants more forest rangers so Cuomo would look good adding more rangers.

  8. Paul says:

    How many more rangers do we need and what will it cost? Let’s have a real conversation. I only hear we need MORE, which I agree with. If we are going to get more we need to look at all the facts. These are great jobs for folks in the area as well. Pretty good pay and I would assume (Scott?) good benefits?

    • Boreas says:

      It isn’t only a question of how many, but WHERE specifically do we need them? The key is to add rangers to specific areas of need and not just increase their numbers equally across the state.

    • Kalie says:

      I wouldn’t say the pay is outstanding. Pay rates for careers in Environmental Conservation: http://www.dec.ny.gov/about/571.html

      • Paul says:

        One has to remember that no much attention is paid on the Adirondacks from the parts of the state that have all the people. When they think about adding additional state help they think of how crazy crowded and overused places like the beaches on long island are. That is where they will put their money. They look up here and say you got 150 thousand people suing the HPW per year big deal, we do that every day and in a much smaller area – stop whining up there!

        • Paul says:

          Kalie sorry that wasn’t supposed to be a reply to you. I agree with your point. I hope at least they are getting lots of good overtime pay for what Scott is describing. Guy finishes work at 10:30 and is back to work at 5:00AM the next day! Insane.

          • Boreas says:

            Paul,

            I am not sure Rangers get overtime pay, but would sure hope so. But keep in mind, I do believe their benefits are better than many of us. However I doubt few do it strictly for the monetary compensation.

          • Kalie says:

            No worries. I agree that I hope they’re being paid plenty of overtime. I’m also interested in the fact that they leave at 10:30pm and are back at 5am. Back in my retail working days, I thought it was NY state law that there had to be 8 hours in between shifts. So if you worked until 10pm, you couldn’t legally be back at work until 6am. Not sure if that’s different if you’re salaried as opposed to hourly

        • Bruce says:

          Paul,

          You make an excellent point. I retired from government service (federal) and so long as one area is just quietly getting by and another sticks out like a sore thumb, that’s where the money goes, followed by headlines reading, “10 new rangers assigned to Such and Such State Park.” Of course the legislators are taking credit.

          During one particularly dark (and very busy) period in the life of a major hospital maintenance dept., there were plenty of jobs for bean counters and office clerks, “VA hospital adds 30 positions.” A bit facetious, but I think you get my point.

  9. Ray Littlejohn says:

    As a City Firefighter, I had the privilege of working with the Rangers for 2 days in the City of Troy for a Swift-Water Rescue / Recovery. I found them all to be consummate professionals with extremely diverse backgrounds and knowledge. After working and listening to them, I believe they are extremely understaffed and need to have their ranks bolstered. Simply stated, More Ranger equals a better and safer service to the public.

  10. Bob Meyer says:

    This is spot on Scott. As Pete Nelson says, TELL YOU LEGISLATORS!
    We need more funding for more rangers!
    I’m calling my representative and senator [again] today.

  11. Jeffrey Levitt says:

    What steps need to taken? As a hiker, I really appreciate all the Rangers do. How can we solve this? Lobbying?

  12. Norman Howard says:

    With all the taking of credit we see from the Governor, one would hope he would take some action on THIS long outstanding challenge.

  13. James Marco says:

    Well said. We need more rangers if only to ease the load on those that are already out there. Yes, I would contribute an extra dollar or two to my taxes if it was earmarked for the rangers. We need them.

  14. David Thomas-Train says:

    The Rangers and all of DEC staff are overworked and underfunded. Several of these people have told me that as their workloads increase, they are shifted from project to project without any clear vision of priorities. The Governor’s current interest in the North Hudson gateway and the hut-to-hut initiative, without increases in Agency funding, only exacerbate this trend in the extreme.

  15. Dennis says:

    Governor boasts about a boom in ADK tourism while the ranger force has been kept flat at a ridiculously low level throughout his whole term in office. Fiscal prudence I guess. Oh yeah, those $ would be part of the operating budget, which we can’t touch…while millions are spent on tourism. During the whole Boreas debate, there was little to no mention of the capacity of the ranger force, as if the ultimate classification, which will affect the level of use, is an unrelated issue. I would love to see the various ADK advocacy organizations take a harder line on this. Unfortunately, they seem quite passive on this particular issue.

    • Pete Nelson P says:

      All the major environmental groups, including the one I’m with, Adirondack Wilderness Advocates, have publicly called for an increase in funding for Forest Rangers, including in written comments related to the Boreas classification. AWA will continue to do so, as will I personally in a coming column.

      Pete

      • Dennis says:

        Hi Pete. Yes, this issue needs much more attention and I look forward to your coming column. I’ve seen general statements calling for additional resources from various groups. When I did a little bit of research into the actual numbers – 134 rangers, including officers for the whole state, millions of acres (!) and that number is unchanged for a decade – I was stunned. IMHO, it’s disgraceful. What I hope for by using the word “passive” in my comment is that the advocacy organizations express themselves in a much more forceful manner. (My apologies if they have and I missed it.) Without putting it in context by using the numbers (which don’t lie), calls for more resources will seem like the usual boilerplate and most likely find their way, yet again, into the circular file.

  16. Joel youngblood says:

    How many Troopers are there in the Adirondacks compared to forest rangers?

    • John Warren John Warren says:

      Good question. I see plenty of them on the side of the highways, and hidden near intersections in town, looking for work to do.

  17. BroMann says:

    I hope Cuomo does not fire this ranger for talking to the reporter.

  18. Lauren Murdock says:

    So sad, that the state has oodles of money to buy more land, and for advertising to get more people to use all of this new, and old, land, but no money for ‘upkeep’.

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