While the budget and staffing levels within the Department of Environmental Conservation have been on life support for a decade now, the Police Benevolent Association of New York State (PBA of NYS) – the union that represents forest rangers – is advocating for moderate staffing increases based on dramatic increases in the amount of state land, recreational users and search and rescue operations that have occurred in the same time period.
Recent testimony given at the Joint Legislature Public Hearing on the 2108-2019 Executive Budget hearings in Albany emphasized the inadequate and critically low level of current ranger staffing and the importance rangers have on public safety and state land protection. Arthur Perryman, the Forest Ranger Director for the PBA of NYS explained the complexity and frequency of Search Operations to the panel:
“You may have also heard about the September 2017 high profile search for an injured hiker on Wallface Mt. in the High Peaks Wilderness. Searchers needed to be lowered from helicopters, use chainsaws, stay interior for days at a time, set up communication relays, manage multiple resources, use advanced land navigation and search in extreme terrain. Simply put, it was a job for forest rangers. During the period of time that Alex (Stevens) was lost, forest rangers responded to 19 other search and rescue missions. In fact, rangers had to leave the search to respond to some of these. Tragically the hiker (Stevens) died during the search effort. I believe this outcome could have been different if we had more forest rangers.”
The continuous search and rescue cycle has caused the rangers’ small staff to respond in a predictable, unfortunate but necessary way. During peak use, rangers now are roadside and reactionary, waiting to respond to the next emergency. Backcountry patrols and other stewardship functions that had been a core responsibility for over a century no longer occur as frequently as they once did. You are less likely to meet a ranger in the backcountry, other than a search or rescue, than ever before.
The statistics for the High Peaks ranger district, where overuse is most intensified, show a startling drop off in all other components of the forest rangers duties. In 2012 there were 62 search and rescue incidents, rangers patrolled 2,636 interior miles on foot, issued 329 tickets and gave 16 public presentations. In 2016 with 98 search and rescue incidents, rangers patrolled 1,834 interior miles on foot, issued only 49 tickets and gave just 2 public presentations.
At the budget hearing with the environmental conservation committee, Drew Cavanagh, Director of the Forest Ranger Superior Officer’s Association of the PBA of NYS, explained how several decades of state land acquisition without a corresponding increase in staffing has left the ratio of rangers per acre below any reasonable measure:
“Today there are 137 forest rangers in New York State. The 137 forest rangers are responsible for 4,934,951 total acres of DEC administered lands. By comparison, in 1970, there were 140 forest rangers and only 3.5 million total acres of DEC administered land. This is evidence that over the past half century the number of forest rangers has remained stagnant while DEC has acquired roughly 30 percent more landmass.”
Cavanagh further explained how this staffing compares with national parks: “A comparison of the National Park Service data on rangers and acreage statistics highlights the inadequacy of the current staffing levels in New York State. For instance, Yellowstone National Park is approximately 2.2 million acres of land and has 330 rangers assigned to it. Thus, Yellowstone Park, which is less than one half of the size of DEC administered land, has 60% more rangers than all of New York State. The national ratio of rangers to all National Park Service administered land is no different. Collectively, national parks across the country equate to approximately 84.9 million acres. In total, there are 3,800 permanent rangers assigned to the national parks. This amounts to approximately one ranger for every 22,000 acres of national park land. By contrast, New York State Forest Rangers must currently cover approximately 40,000 acres.”
A failure for decades to add more rangers has caused the state with the longest and proudest tradition of public land protection to fall far behind. Article 14 of the state constitution calls for these lands in the Adirondacks and Catskills to be “forever wild” but that often repeated phrase does not ring true without forest rangers to patrol all corners of the Forest Preserve. Political leaders in Albany are starting to take notice.
Basil Seggos, the Department of Environmental Conservation Commissioner, listened to and answered questions from the same panel about the work force he oversees. Sen. Betty Little of the 45th District heaped praise on his rangers during her question period. “I can’t mention forest without talking about the forest rangers and thanking them for extraordinary work…they have had some huge searches this year, overnight searches, cold, nasty conditions and very, very effective, so thank them.”
Assemblyman Dan Stec of the 114th District voiced his concern regarding the funding of the DEC especially as it relates to forest rangers “specifically ranger staffing is always a question, especially as we acquire more lands.” Seggos responded glowingly of his rangers. “I can’t say enough about what they do and since I’ve been in office I have made it my priority to give them everything they need.”
Indeed, the ranger force has improved its ranks under the commissioner’s leadership. Vacancies have been filled faster in recent years thanks to academies in consecutive years but the under lying problem remains, with the current number of items, rangers cannot fulfill their mission. The PBA of NYS advocates a state wide staffing level increase to grow the forest ranger force to 175. What rangers need most now, is more rangers.
Photo: NYS Forest Ranger Director, Police Benevolent Association of NYS Arthur Perryman at the Joint Legislature Public Hearing on the 2108-2019 Executive Budget on February 27, 2018.