A recent spate of backcountry rescues has shone a light on some of those among us on the front lines of Adirondack Park stewardship and public safety – Forest Rangers. Until 1981 there were over 100 Forest Rangers patrolling the Adirondacks. Over the succeeding 30 years that number was gradually reduced to 40-45 and now continues to fall due to budget cuts, retirements, and defunding of the the Forest Ranger and Environmental Conservation Officer Training Academy. As Dave Gibson recently noted:
“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.”
DEC tends to emphasize those paid to fight forest fires as the founding members of the Forest Ranger service. With the creation of the Forest Preserve in 1885, the three-member Forestry Commission (1885-1894) was tasked with appointing Firewardens in each of the 234 Forest Preserve towns (including the Catskills). Fire Wardens were required to be residents of the towns in which they served, and were limited to preventing and fighting forest fires. “Firewardens are not required to discharge any duties except those necessary for the prevention and extinction of forest fires”, their commissions read.
These Firewardens held no policing powers until 1909 when changes were made to the Forest, Fish and Game Law which replaced the Fire Warden system with a system of three Adirondack districts, headed by a Superintendent of Fires. Each district was subdivided under Special Fire Patrolmen who supervised Fire Patrolmen that were hired as necessary on a temporary basis. This was also the beginning of the general erection and staffing of Fire Towers. As significant was the change that provided Fire Patrolmen with policing powers equivalent to Game Protectors. One hundred years ago in 1912, the title of Superintendent of Fires became District Forest Ranger, and Fire Patrolmen became Forest Rangers.
Forest Rangers are not the oldest law enforcement organization in New York State however, that honor goes to eight men appointed Game Protectors in 1880. According to DEC “Incredibly, the eight Game Protectors appointed in 1880 were charged with covering the entire state. Protectors were granted authority to enforce laws to protect deer, birds, and fish, and to bring legal action against those who chose to violate those laws. They could arrest without warrants, and seize nets as evidence. A total annual budget of $6,000 supported the $500 annual salaries and expense accounts for each.” Game Protectors had the full police powers enjoyed by Forest Rangers today. Their numbers were increased to 16 in 1883.
Environmental Conservation Officer Captain Tim Huss wrote a short history of Game Protectors, which concluded: “Remember that this was a time when laws protecting fish and wildlife were not widely accepted. Game Protectors were resented, and in many instances despised.” That’s one perspective, but another points to the long history of game protection laws in America (among the first was a 1646 deer season in Rhode Island) and common traditions among Adirondack Guides and locals alike about how, when, and where hunting should happen, and by whom.
New York State Game Protectors were not enforcing the laws of outsiders against Adirondackers, they were Adirondackers. The state’s small number of game Protectors (appointed by the Governor) relied heavily on Special Game Protectors, civilians deputized with peace officer status who could be appointed by county supervisors to serve in any municipality. Towns in Essex and Warren counties for example had their own locally resident and locally appointed Specials, as they were often called, to enforce the fish and game laws.
By 1950, Special Game Protectors totaled 1,000 and did much of the day to day work of pursuing violators of the game laws, serving warrants and making arrests. As the Game Protector force modernized some considered them untrustworthy in pursuing their friends and neighbors, and they were abolished in the early 1970s. In 1964, the Game Protectors were renamed Conservation Officers, and in 1970 became the Environmental Conservation Officers (ECOs) we know today.
Tim Huss’s history includes stories of several Game Protectors wounded and killed in the line of duty. Next week, the Almanack will have a story of one Special Game Protector Huss did not mention, William Jackson, murdered in Schroon Lake in 1897.
Photos: An early Forest Ranger, and Glens Falls Game Protectors in 1928 (Courtesy DEC).