Most people think of today’s Forest Rangers as the stewards of the Forest Preserve and experts in wildland firefighting and search and rescue. The Rangers share their origins with the Forest Preserve itself. The decal on the side of a Forest Ranger vehicle states “serving since 1885.”
It was in May of that year that Governor David B. Hill signed into law Chapter 283, which authorized the appointment of a wildland fire fighting force called Fire Wardens. These men, according to their appointment, would “take charge of” and “direct the work necessary for extinguishing” fires that occurred in their assigned areas. Fire Wardens were generally only paid when involved in actual suppression but they did have some police-like powers with respect to fire and establishing a fire fighting force. Their official warrant stated, “All persons in the territory, whom you may order to render you such assistance, are required by law, to obey your order, and any person who may refuse to act in obedience to your order is, by statute, liable to a fine of not less than five nor more than twenty dollars.”
The Forest Commission, also created in 1885, would oversee the wardens and was empowered to have “care, custody, control and superintendence” over the Forest Preserve lands themselves. That phrase is still used to describe the Forest Ranger’s role in state land protection today. Col. William F. Fox was Assistant Secretary of that first commission remained on several different iterations that oversaw the Forest Preserve. While authorized to hire Fire Wardens in 1885, it appears none were actually appointed or paid until the fire season of 1890. It soon became apparent to Colonel Fox, who had ascended to the title “Superintendent of Forests” by 1891, that a full-time force was needed, not only to suppress fires, but to be proactive in protecting the state lands from illegal timber harvest and occupation, primarily in the form of camps and homes. Col. Fox recommended a force of rangers to meet this objective as early as 1899 but it would not come to fruition until 1912, when the title of Forest Ranger was created in chapter 444 of the laws of that year.
While the title has remained the same for over 100 years, the job has evolved in many ways. Forest Ranger Captain Paul Hartman (ret) recently completed a website dedicated to depicting the history of the New York State Forest Ranger. “It’s good to record our past so the people hired as rangers today know how they got there.” He explains, as part of his reason for donating his time to the creation of the website. “Since the 1970’s the job has changed considerably. It has evolved with the times.”
Captain Hartmann became a ranger in 1964 and became a supervising a ranger in 1975, then called a District Ranger. That same position was later reclassified as Captain in 1980. He retired with that rank in 1998. During his career Captain Hartmann witnessed many of the changes on display at his website, nysforestrangers.com.
In the early 1990’s Captain Hartmann helped develop some of the early webpages for the Department of Environmental Conservation. That experience was put to use in retirement when he began building the website in 2009. “It was a lot more work than I thought it would be. Collecting and compiling all the photos and history.” The website is also updated periodically to include news with links to current ranger exploits.
Photos: Above, the Forest Ranger Motorcycle Force, established in the 1920s (NYS Archives Photo); and Col. William F. Fox.