As the ice clogged rivers, streams and trails of the Adirondacks thaw, there are many things to look forward to. Wildflowers and spring migratory birds are tops on my list. The sound of running water is another.
Seeing a Forest Ranger in the woods may not top my list, but it’s pretty rare sight and very important to those woods and the public which recreates or works there.
Last year the NYS DEC Forest Rangers celebrated 125 years of care and custody of our wild lands like the NYS Forest Preserve in the Adirondacks and Catskills. It was an historic occasion far too few of us took note of. We may never need to depend upon a Ranger to get us safely out of a wild forest or off of a wild river but, as they say, you never know.
During my years with the Association for the Protection of the Adirondacks, it was a privilege to occasionally interact with Forest Rangers like Lou Curth, Peter Fish, Patty Rudge, Steve Guenther (all retired) and still active Rangers such as Jim Giglinto and Steve Ovitt. To me, these and other men and women like them wore their uniform with understandable pride, but also used it to best advantage. The uniform gets our attention. The best Rangers take advantage of that learning opportunity, and also possess keen knowledge of their own district, including its backcountry trails, and the people in the community they could recruit to help them on a patrol, search and rescue, forest fire or special project. The Forest Ranger is the public face of the Department of Environmental Conservation, and their ambassadorship for the forest environment really does make a positive impression and help prevent bad things from happening or from getting worse.
Years ago, I attended a meeting about a Wild Forest area of the Forest Preserve. Snowmobile trails deep in the Wild Forest were being abused and the environment damaged by ATV riders – some of them local, but some from outside the area also riding on these trails in violation of laws designed to keep wild forest wild.
The Forest Ranger for that district grew up in the area and knew many in the room. During a break in the meeting, he engaged some of them. He related to them very easily, and grew up with some of them. In a friendly manner, he confronted them. ATV use on the Forest Preserve is not permitted, and outside of it only pursuant to relevant highway laws. He knew he had support from other local people who were afraid to have their kids play outside because of some very reckless ATV operators. Mostly the interactions ended in laughter, but his message got across.
The Ranger took advantage of the moment, and commanded respect. Local people acknowledged he had a job to do, and that he would enforce the laws in a friendly but persistent manner. He would engage and educate first, and be tough if he had to be with repeat violators. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure was his motto. ATV abuses began to decline in that district as a result of the Ranger’s efforts.
The DEC website tells us that as of 2008 there were 106 field Forest Rangers statewide, and some 26 Lieutenants, Captains and Directors. During my years, the numbers of Adirondack Forest Rangers has run about 40-44. However, in the past four years there have been a number of retirements of veteran Rangers, and the number of recruits replacing them has dwindled because over the past three years the State has eliminated the Forest Ranger and Environmental Conservation Officer Training Academy due to budget cuts.
In 2010, all 26 Assistant Forest Ranger positions – the seasonal staff that works with the Rangers in large, demanding districts – were eliminated. These days, one is hard pressed to encounter a Forest Ranger on the trails or in the woods – at the very time when the recreating public is most in need of their services. And their jobs have become much more complex. Since becoming a part of the DEC Office of Public Protection around 1997, law enforcement has become a big part of their jobs, and Rangers are frequently pulled away from their patrols to enforce against substance abuse in crowded places like campgrounds.
Some younger Rangers may like the emphasis on law enforcement wherever it is happening. Some more experienced Rangers remind them that of all law enforcement, only Forest Rangers know the wildlands best. When it comes to the Forest Preserve and other public lands that demand care, stewardship, regular patrols and first responders, only Forest Rangers are trained and prepared to do that job with excellence, not the otherwise essential State Police, Environmental Conservation Officers and Sheriff’s patrols.
As the DEC budget is slashed and Governors seek efficiency and consolidation, it is a worry that the smallest division of the Office of Public Protection – Forest Rangers – would simply be swallowed up into a larger law enforcement body. Commissioner Grannis assured us that would never happen under his watch. Hopefully, that remains the committment of his successors. As Forest Rangers look out for our welfare in the woods, let’s keep an eye out for them and give them the respect and support they earn, and that the Forest Preserve demands.
Photos: DEC Forest Rangers at work educating hikers and conducting search and rescue operations. Courtesy DEC.