During my first Adirondack conservation meeting, in January of 1987, one of the top issues discussed was the pressure the Forest Preserve was under due to the limited State budgets and loss of DEC staff personnel.
How were the hundreds of miles of state’s Forest Preserve boundaries to be surveyed and marked? How were the “forever wild” natural resources on the Forest Preserve to be properly cared for by so few foresters and rangers? Someone on my board of directors (I was still a greenhorn) had invited DEC Lands and Forests Director Robert Bathrick to our meeting to discuss the problem he faced caring for the Forest Preserve and more.
My board set the right, collegial tone: that these were shared problems; we all owned an undivided deed to the Forest Preserve, and therefore advocates like us needed good information in order to intelligently weigh in as much as possible – in concert with the DEC. After all, DEC was and still is the public’s custodian for the Forest Preserve, acting in the public’s interest.
Not that we didn’t question DEC’s choice of priorities even 29 years ago. Barbara McMartin was among the most active members of the board of the Association for the Protection of the Adirondacks in challenging Bob Bathrick and DEC in its management and budgetary choices and decisions. Even then, Barbara was questioning why DEC paid so little attention to interesting hiking trails on Wild Forest – where most of the trails were designated and routed purely as snowmobile trails. That particular interest of hers accelerated in the following decade.
Back in 1987, there were about 105 Forest Rangers in the field, not counting supervisors and administrators, to patrol and enforce the laws (and mark the boundaries) on maybe 2.8 million acres of Adirondack and Catskill Forest Preserve, and maybe half a million acres of State Forests. There were only a few conservation easements back then, maybe 20,000 acres. Let’s say 3.3 million acres in all.
In 2015, there may be five fewer Rangers, about 100 in the field, to patrol and enforce the laws on 4.832 million acres of Forest Preserve (both Adirondack and Catskill Parks), State Forests, and Private Lands under Conservation Easement, or about a 30-35% increase in responsibilities by acreage from 1987. About 85% of the increase comes in the form of private lands protected by a Conservation Easement. These lands have grown from roughly 20,000 acres in 1987 to over 900,000 acres today.
While the land base DEC cares for on our behalf may have grown 35%, the staffing has declined more than 25%. In 1995 there were 225 full time staff working for the Division of Lands and Forests – the Division responsible for the Forest Preserve, State Forests, and Easements. Today there are 158.
Focusing down, in a big part of the Catskills (DEC Region 3) there is one DEC forester, maybe 1 and a half, to write unit management plans for the 300,000 acre Catskill Forest Preserve and supervise the forest tax laws on private land. The work load has tripled while the staff in New Paltz and other regional offices has been cut by more than half.
In the Adirondacks, Region 5 (in Ray Brook) reports show that Lands and Forests staff are down by two-thirds, Fisheries down by half, and Wildlife down by two-thirds over the past 20 years.
The DEC Division of Operations, which oversees much of the work on the Forest Preserve and on the State Campgrounds had 122 personnel in 1995. Today, that division has 50, or a drop off of 60%.
Looking at its operational budget, DEC’s latest budget received less than $800,000 to oversee, care for and manage 4.8 million acres. That’s sixteen cents per acre.
Call any DEC office these days about a natural resource problem in your home area, as I have recently, and you face the reality behind these statistics. A hard working, skeletal staff attempts to do the job and respond to your concerns. DEC natural resource/forest preserve/forest ranger staffing and operating budgets are in deplorable shape. Under these circumstances, DEC staff does a remarkable job and constantly credit the volunteers, private sector and municipal support they receive in the form of labor and finances to keep up with some of the work load.
As Barbara McMartin advocated in 1987, and as Adirondack Wild: Friends of the Forest Preserve has just advocated in its Park at a Crossroad report (2015), the public should do two things at once: Push hard in 2016 for DEC’s natural resources budget given the unexpected increase in State tax revenues this year. Urge Governor Cuomo and his budget office to increase the DEC Land and Forests, Forest Ranger, and Natural Resource budgets accordingly.
At the same time, the public ought to question where DEC places its priorities – and who is making those priorities. To build a single snowmobile community connector trail in the Adirondacks (now ongoing in Newcomb-Minerva) is costing us and the DEC a great deal. DEC personnel is reassigned from all over the State to build wider, straighter, flatter routes for groomed snowmobiling, and cutting thousands of trees for each one (these actions also violate the State Land Master Plan and quite possibly the NYS Constitution). One can hazard a guess how much DEC will spend building a new 130-foot steel bridge over the designated “scenic” Cedar River, all to accommodate more powerful, faster snowmobiling (recommended in the latest Essex Chain of Lakes Unit Management Plan). The cost of this one bridge will exceed DEC’s entire Forest Preserve stewardship budget in both Catskill and Adirondack Parks by many times.
There are alternatives ways of investing public dollars in the Forest Preserve that are less problematic and much less expensive than wider, straighter snowmobile routes on the Forest Preserve or steel snowmobile bridges hundreds of feet long which duplicate other bridges nearby. In past Unit Management Plans, DEC used to recommend studies to determine the carrying capacity in a given unit of Wilderness or Wild Forest to find answers to questions such as: where are people creating damage due to overuse or misuse? How fast is that change occurring? Is it seriously damaging the capacity of the area to withstand such use given the management goals for the area? What are the indicators of the change, how to you measure it, and what management action can be taken to avoid or reduce that damage and restore desired conditions? What monitoring will be done to assure these conditions are maintained?
These studies, known as Limits of Acceptable Change studies, were once recommended by DEC land managers in units that face user pressure and natural resource damage, such as the Indian Lake primitive camping areas, or the St. Regis Canoe area, where many studies have shown deteriorating primitive campsite conditions and declining visitor use satisfaction. This work is rarely undertaken because it is challenging and requires sustained commitment and investment by DEC over a period of years. However, the sums required do not begin to approach those required to span scenic rivers with steel bridges.
Years ago, a few of these studies were performed on major hiking corridors into the High Peaks Wilderness area, with much good result. Spending scarce Forest Preserve dollars on these studies in more areas of the Adirondack and Catskill Forest Preserve today would result in cost effective stewardship tomorrow, stewardship more consistent with the wild forest purposes of the Forest Preserve enshrined in our State Constitution.
Photo: A snowmobile bridge being built in the Moose River Plains in 2011.