Thursday, March 22, 2018

Scott van Laer On Budget, Forest Ranger Staffing

arthur perrymanThe April 1st New York State budget deadline is quickly approaching, debate and negotiations will be in high gear for the next week over the approximately $160 billion spending plan.

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.

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Scott van Laer has been a forest ranger for 21 years and is currently a delegate for PBA of NYS, the union which represents forest rangers.

24 Responses

  1. Paul says:

    How many visitors does Yellowstone park have compared with the land you are describing in the Adirondack park?

    Looks like about 4 million visitors in 2015:

    I agree we need more rangers, maybe we should do like Yellowstone and make people who visit the park pay something? If 4 million people visiting Yellowstone each pay 10 bucks that’s 40 million dollars. Maybe we should stop asking the state (which usually gets us nowhere) and figure out another way to pay for it.

    • Boreas says:

      I would venture to say most visitors to Yellowstone never leave pavement or boardwalks. They mostly sightsee. Also, many in that headcount are in tour buses. At least in the Lamar Valley where I spent most of my time, backcountry trail usage was relatively light, and often directed by guides or outfitters. IMO, backcountry (beyond pavement) use in the ADKs is much higher as a percent of use.

      We need Rangers in the backcountry, not in their trucks. If the state is going to promote backcountry tourism, they need to provide the Rangers to keep it safe. How they pay for it is up to Albany. Readers here know my views on licenses and certifications, so I won’t go into it again. Users of the resource need to ante up.

      • Balian the Cat says:


        I agree, but worry that the Ranger you speak of no longer exists. When I see Rangers now, they look like paramilitary police. I am not in any way disparaging them or their profession or the regulations they operate under – but they wear belts and radios and carry arms/body armor that must weigh 35lbs before they don a pack. I have seen assistant rangers in the backcountry, but the Pete Fish stereotype appears to be a thing of the past. Trips out west indicate to me that the NPS and USFS havent gone this route as appropriately equipped rangers can bee seen miles out, but I don’t think NYS Rangers do overnights or extended patrols anymore. It’s all just “response.” I would be happy to learn I am wrong about this.

        • Boreas says:


          Scott would be the person to address your point, not me. I would assume the body armor you mention has more to do with patrol by vehicle (responding to ANY emergency) vs. routine backcountry patrolling. All Rangers probably do not NEED to be outfitted like a SWAT team.

          But necessity is the mother of invention.I believe there are different levels of Rangers and environmental officers. Even if we had “Junior Rangers” or “Associate Rangers” to perform the duties Pete used to perform it would be an immense help. This is currently being done in a way with the seasonal Summit Steward program. But it could be expanded to waters and forests as well. These people would only be pulled away from patrolling and monitoring for perhaps S&R, depending on their skill set. They could be full-time or part-time.

        • scottvanlaer says:

          Forest Rangers are police officers and do have a paramilitary structure and training. We have a very diverse job so the outward appearance, ie; uniform will vary depending on the task or mission for the day. I have been a ranger for 22 years and my father was a ranger before me so I have a pretty long perspective.

          We are not doing the amount of back country work or overnights that we once did. It is extremely frustrating for us. As little as 6 or 7 years ago I was able to remain at outposts or camp about 25 nights a year. The past few years that number has been in the single digits and usually during slower months and not peak times. I still put in the requests but they are routinely denied.

          You are correct, our staffing levels have relegated us to “response”. It is not just the search and rescues that you read about that have necessitated this, it’s the possibility, probability and certainty of the next rescue that has caused us to become a “response” team. We are seeking a modest increase in staffing to allow us to return to more fully patrolling the backcountry.

          (Scott van Laer for PBA of NYS)

        • Scott says:

          Balian, since 1912 the state forest rangers are supposed to be performing full police duties relative to the protection of the state lands and the people that use the state lands. The rangers full police duties relative to state land protection was directed by the Conservation Commission in 1911 and enacted in the legislation creating the ranger job title in 1912. The state forest ranger’s law enforcement is one of the pillars of state land protection (the others being search, rescue, wildfire, and education). See wikipedia or the DEC website for more. It is unfortunate if some folks feel the ranger’s green uniform gives a paramilitary impression. Looking like professional uniformed rangers or police officers does not preclude rangers from doing back country patrol. The insufficient numbers of state forest rangers has long been a primary problem whether it be for adequate patrol or appropriate ability for emergency response. The insufficient numbers of rangers is more problematic now as the amount of state land and the numbers of users continues to increase. The NPS and USFS Rangers I have seen and a couple I know personally are equally uniformed and equipped except they also have tasers the NYS rangers don’t have yet. You might not realize it but often in the rural areas where rangers work and troopers or deputies numbers are thin, rangers can be called to assist those agencies as the closest backup officer on danergous 911 calls. Rangers are also called in for backcountry fugitive manhunts. And not only are rangers responsible for backcountry patrol but they must also patrol the problematic roadside primitive camping areas and resond to complaints in state campgrounds. That’s why rangers are trained and equipped as they are. The state forest rangers job is at a different level than the state’s seasonal assistant forest rangers. I learned from conversations with the article’s author that previous generations of state forest rangers were managed with a much stricter paramilitary style of leadership and supervision than the rangers of today.

          • Balian the Cat says:

            Scott & Scott,

            I want to be very clear that I am in no way disparaging the people or the profession. I spend a lot of time in the High Peaks and if my wife and I ever had a situation that couldn’t be handled via self-rescue, I would pray that somebody like Ranger Van Laer would was on his way. NYS Forest Rangers are a credit to our State. That said, I stand by my original point which SVL seems to corroborate: The true/dedicated backcountry Ranger is a rare critter in the woods these days. I am perfectly willing to believe that staffing levels play a role in that, if SLV wants to get out there they should add resources that allow for it! But whatever the reason, I think it’s an issue. I get and don’t dispute the points being made about public interventions and fugitive pursuits, etc…but that’s not the kind of Ranger I am talking about. I spent a considerable amount of time in the Cascades this past summer and routinely interacted with unarmed (unless it was in their pack or otherwise concealed) Rangers who wanted to talk about water filtering, campsite location, wildlife interactions, etc. They had encyclopedic knowledge of the area and it’s flora/fauna. They were protectors and stewards of the land. I repeat, I have nothing but respect for NYS Rangers, I just hope we can find a way to allow them to spend more time in their historic role.

            • scottvanlaer says:

              I understand. The union wants to get rangers into the backcountry for the precise reasons you outlined. We recognize we are failing at this.

              (Scott van Laer for PBA of NYS)

  2. Common Cents says:

    True more land is being added to the forest preserve, but that does one cessation mean a proportionate increase in workload…ie. Essex chain and little usage!. No one can argue important job high peaks rangers do, they are rode hard and put away wet literally speaking. If we look at rangers outside of high peaks and their activity reports we find they essentially making work a lot of the time. There are probably enough rangers, they just need to be utilized and assigned to areas of greatest need. Check out the data!

    • Boreas says:

      I agree to a point. Ranger’s duties not only include responding to emergencies, education, etc., but they also are responsible for patrolling their assigned areas. Just because Ranger A doesn’t have a lot of emergencies and other emergencies to respond to doesn’t mean they have to look for work. They can always patrol their territory on foot looking for problems, invasive species, wildlife surveys, searching for Bigfoot – whatever. In fact, it is crucial that they have this time to perform the patrolling. Ranger B may rarely be able to patrol because of multiple emergencies.

      I agree DEC should look at redistributing the workforce where needed (that should be a given), I don’t believe it is going to result in significantly lower workloads in the heart of the Park without significantly reducing patrolling efforts around the rest of the state. Robbing Peter to pay Paul?

      • Common Cents says:

        Has anybody liked at rangers by region and state land acres in a given region..would seem to be an important piece of data. Gun and body armour on a mountain rescue?

        • Scott says:

          Statewide ranger region-zone numbers from 2016-2017 Annual Report:
          R1 – 5 rangers cover 120,555 acres, had 4 SAR, 71 tickets (24,111ac/ranger, 14 tickets/ranger)
          3A – 7 rangers cover 210,658 acres, had 17 SAR, 360 tickets (30,094ac/ranger, 51 ticket/ranger)
          3B – 7 rangers cover 209,957 acres, had 15 SAR, 236 tickets (29,993ac/ranger, 34 ticket/ranger)
          4A – 7 rangers cover 147,385 acres, had 30 SAR, 405 tickets (21,055ac/ranger, 58 ticket/ranger)
          4B – 6 rangers cover 168,971 acres, had 4 SAR, 74 tickets (28,162ac/ranger, 12 tickets/ranger)
          5A – 6 rangers cover 467,451 acres, had 15 SAR, 49 tickets (77,908 ac/ranger, 8 tickets/ranger)
          5B – 6 rangers cover 275,828 acres, had 18 SAR, 87 tickets (45,971 ac/ranger, 3 tickets/ranger)
          5C – 6 rangers cover 266.176 acres, had 98 SAR, 49 tickets (44,363 ac/ranger, 15 ticket/ranger)
          5D – 9 rangers cover 897,778 acres, had 31 SAR, 261 tickets (99,753 ac/ranger, 29ticket/ranger)
          5E – 8 rangers cover 640,067 acres, had 35 SAR, 76 tickets (80,008ac/ranger, 10 tickets/ranger)
          5F – 5 rangers cover 106,596 acres, had 18 SAR, 87 tickets (21,119ac/ranger, 17 tickets/ranger)
          6A – 6 rangers cover 458,466 acres, had 9 SAR, 73 tickets (76,411ac/ranger, 12 tickets/ranger)
          6B – 6 rangers cover 446,664 acres, had 11 SAR, 100 tickets (74,444ac/ranger, 17 ticket/ranger)
          6C – 6 rangers cover 324,561 acres, had 14 SAR, 213 tickets (54,094ac/ranger, 36 ticket/ranger)
          R7 – 6 rangers cover 276,905 acres, had 9 SAR, 111 tickets (46,150ac/ranger, 19 tickets/ranger)
          R8 – 5 rangers cover 264,385 acres, had 9 SAR, 105 tickets (52,877ac/ranger, 21 tickets/ranger)
          R9 – 7 rangers cover 313,914 acres, had 20 SAR, 204 tickets (44,845ac/ranger, 29 ticket/ranger)

        • Scott says:

          If you ever saw a ranger wearing body armor on a mountain rescue it must be a pretty dangerous rescue of a pretty dangerous armed fugitive…otherwise that idea is nonsense.

        • scottvanlaer says:

          I have been on over 600 S@R operations in my career. I have worn body armor on about 10 of those, all involved fugitives like Dannemorra or missing subjects where some type of threat was made. Normally it would be a hindrance to a S@R missions effectiveness. On rare occasions it is much appreciated PPE.

          • Boreas says:

            Is body armor a personal/professional choice or is it mandatory on certain searches? I assume it is always in the truck? Is there a mandatory equipment list you must always carry? Just curious.

            • scottvanlaer says:

              Yes there is minimum gear list we are required to readily have available. During Dannemora the vest was required by the command staff, a few others I have been on also.

  3. Dave Gibson says:

    Bravo to DEC Forest Rangers Art Perryman, Drew Cavenaugh and Scott Van Laer for bringing this staffing matter before the NYS Legislature, and for their unified advocacy seeking additional Forest Rangers in the field. This advocacy by DEC personnel isn’t easy. DEC is given a budget by the executive and ordered to live with it. DEC Commissioners like Pete Grannis who publicly declared he could not live with it were not continued in office. Speaking up and out from within a large public agency in Albany or Washington DC isn’t rewarded – just the opposite. All natural resource personnel – Rangers, Foresters, Biologists, Surveyors, Technicians of all kinds – at DEC are severely understaffed and have been for decades. Our natural resources and public lands cannot be protected from a desktop. They suffer as a result of the lack of dedicated field personnel.

  4. Paul says:

    All of this is true, and you are never going to see sufficient funding from the DEC this simply isn’t a priority for them. Just look at the hearing. This topic was barely mentioned. There were a slew of other kooky special interest groups there. Keep begging for money that won’t come or find a different way to fund what we need. Here you are asking for sufficient coverage in places where the main users are hikers who are only giving money to the ADK or nobody for their parking. It really comes down to pay up or – you know what.

    • Boreas says:

      Until there IS a mechanism for all hikers, campers, and paddlers to “pay up” to a dedicated Ranger fund, it is unlikely to happen. Tip jars won’t work. If unwilling to pursue licensing, certification, etc. – if nothing else, an annual Ranger Fund Stamp could be instituted for purchase with the current licensing system.

  5. Boreas says:

    Another consideration with ranger staffing is not only acreage per ranger figures, but usage figures and need for “ranger presence” needed for emergency situations. How intensely does any particular region NEED to be patrolled? State lands used primarily for conservation and hunting/fishing with few to no roads or trails likely aren’t going to need intense patrolling or management. More sensitive lands, intensely used lands, and easily-accessed lands are likely to require more intensive patrolling, thus a larger ranger concentration to be effective. So using historical ranger acreage/ranger figures only has limited meaning with changing recreation and land use patterns throughout the state.