Thursday, June 11, 2020

More Than Ever, We Need Rangers to Be Ambassadors for the Forest Preserve

The Coronavirus pandemic is asserting its influence on Adirondack summer recreation, amplifying worries about public safety and the increased number of visitors, especially in the High Peaks.  There are many questions: will there be more hikers this season?  Fewer?  Will choked trail heads be COVID vectors? Will novice visitors seeking to escape both the coronavirus and social isolation mean an increase in unprepared hikers and rescues?  Will a decrease in the usual resources such as open facilities, trail stewards and shuttles cause our visitor management challenges to be overwhelming?  No one knows.  Understandably, concern is high.   

With that concern I see an increase in the impulse to take negative measures.  Whether it’s a broad policy aimed at reducing the spread of COVID-19 (urging potential visitors to stay home), a more directly expressed sentiment (telling visitors to go home) or a tactical initiative (expanded no parking zones with warnings to ticket or tow), there is an increase in strategies to discourage behavior.  

Save for overtly telling people to “go home” (which I find xenophobic), I’m not criticizing any of these actions.  In many cases they are unquestionably necessary for public safety or enforcement of laws.  I live in Keene and the recent work to mark no parking/tow zones on Town streets was both appropriate and, frankly, imperative.  That said, any behavioral psychologist will tell you that it is much more effective to encourage behavior that you want rather than discourage behavior you don’t want.  So while I do not necessarily object to negative measures, I’d rather not lead with them.  Sometimes we have to; but concern and fear too easily obscure the fact that often there is a better path.  Education, information and encouragement are powerful things, and they appeal to people’s better impulses.  It goes without saying that the overwhelming majority of visitors to the High Peaks do not want to give COVID-19 to anyone, nor catch it, nor do they want to damage the Wilderness.

This tension and balance between negative and positive has me thinking more and more about New York State’s Forest Rangers.   In the last few years I have seen an increasing characterization of Forest Rangers as law enforcement officers.   They are: as sworn Police Officers, Forest Rangers have a duty and mission enforce and uphold the law.  But it troubles me that the role of Forest Rangers as positive ambassadors for the Forest Preserve is being reduced.  Forest Rangers are experts in wilderness, in protection of natural resources, in public safety and rescues, in educating visitors about wilderness recreation and in managing visitor impacts.  But the combination of too few of them for an increasing amount of State land along with too many rescues from the increases in unprepared visitors, all too often keeps them from being able to play that role.  Add negative-reinforcement duties like patrolling the Route 73 corridor and writing parking tickets and it’s no wonder I almost never encounter Rangers in the back country any more.  That is a terrible loss: it is during interactions with visitors at trail heads and in the back country that Rangers can bring all their expertise and knowledge to bear for the benefit of both visitors and the Forest Preserve.  Rangers on patrol in the back country constitute positive reinforcement at its finest, and it is a role they are uniquely equipped to fill.

For anyone with a long history of hiking in the Adirondacks, these interactions are an instrumental part of their experiences.  I feel for those few regular hikers of the 1970’s and 1980’s who did not have at least one encounter with the unforgettable Pete Fish.  My frequent forays from Upper Works in the 2000’s involved some excellent interactions with the inimitable Del Jeffery.  A few minutes with these guys or any of the other Rangers I have come to know is more effective than any other measure I can imagine taking, and that includes during this time of pandemic.

My point here is not about numbers.  Yes, I join my environmental colleagues in a consensus demand for more Forest Rangers.  But however many Rangers may or may not be on duty in the Adirondacks, I also call for recognition that their role as patrolling ambassadors is as important as any other role they play, save for rescues.  Not only is it positive, but it is wedded to the Wilderness ethos itself. 

In an era where it is more and more the case that wilderness is something to be conquered, the next peak bagged and checked-off, the wilderness ethos of which I speak, the same that fueled Bob Marshall, Paul Schaefer and Howard Zahniser, risks being devalued.  In my mind this devaluation can be reinforced by visitor management measures that are negative, that send a message “you are not welcome.”  I think we can send a message that people are welcome and still protect the wilderness.  Forest Rangers have done exactly that for decades.  We need their vital contribution to our benevolent wilderness ethos now more than ever.  

The human touch is irreplaceable in promoting a wilderness ethos.  It is the best way to protect the wilderness, manage visitors in a positive, affirming way and safeguard their lives as well.  We need to find a way to enable Forest Rangers to rededicate themselves to their work as ambassadors for the Forest Preserve.  The dividends this would generate would ripple through everything else we need to undertake in order to preserve the Adirondacks.

Adirondack Almanack file photo

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Pete Nelson is a teacher, writer, essayist and activist whose work has appeared in a variety of Adirondack publications, and regularly in the Adirondack Almanack since 2005. Pete is also a founder and current Coordinator of the Adirondack Diversity Advisory Council, which is working to make the Park more welcoming and inclusive.When not writing or teaching mathematics at North Country Community College, Pete can be found in the back country, making music or even walking on stilts, which he and his wife Amy have done professionally throughout the United States for nearly two decades.Pete is a proud resident of Keene, and along with Amy and his dog Henderson owns Lost Brook Tract, a forty-acre inholding deep in the High Peaks Wilderness.

36 Responses

  1. Todd Eastman says:

    Peter Fish and several other rangers fought to keep the rangers working in the Adirondack Park from having to carry side arms and shift from backcountry safety and education, to being used as an extension of the law enforcement image that was becoming increasingly forced upon forest rangers nationwide at that point in the 1980s.

    The selection of potential rangers seemed to change based less on their skills at conveying the messaging needed to create safe experiences for visitors in the Park, and more to a show of force prevalent among any employees of agencies with even a vague connection to law enforcement.

    Great issue to bring up Pete!

  2. Jim Fox says:

    Absolutely, Pete! From my experience as a volunteer on Stillwater Mountain, hikers want to engage, and 99% of them are from outside the Blue Line. Meeting an Adirondack ambassador on the trail in the woods or a mountain-top lookout is just good stewardship for this priceless wilderness.

  3. Boreas says:

    I agree Pete. A lot of information is exchanged between an experienced Ranger on a routine patrol and a hiker – be they new or experienced. Some of the information is exchanged verbally, and some of the information is exchanged non-verbally. Not to take anything away from stewards, but they just don’t have the gravitas that the Rangers have. It is a travesty that Rangers no longer have the flexibility to spend most of their time on routine patrol. Ideally, the bulk of their time should be spent in the woods actually ranging and protecting the resource. I fear those days are gone for good.

  4. Ron Dack says:

    Bravo! Don’t Forget that the forest rangers work for the people. If we want them to be in the backcountry then we need to let the DEC know and accept nothing less.

    • Steve B. says:

      I can state that a Ranger cost me a few hundred dollars.

      My encounter was in winter on the Marcy Dam trail and we were just inside the property boundary of the ADK Loj. I was walking in hiking boots on a trail were it was required to wear snow shoes. Problem was my snowshoes were ancient modified bear paws, the round and wide version. These snowshoes were mostly useless at this point in time as it seems everybody had moved to the much narrower style and the trail was thus a narrow trails unsuitable for my snowshoes. Because we we’re on private property, he could not write me a citation.

      After a conversation with the Ranger I immediately purchased a set of MSR’s which are and have been wonderful so all I can say is thanks for the lecture. Money well spent.

  5. Phil Terrie says:

    You got me thinking about state employees who worked deep in the High Peaks long ago–so far back that they worked for the Conservation Dept, not the DEC: Charley Nolan at Lake Colden, Andy Blanchette at Shattuck Clearing,. There was a tall, lean fellow named Spencer (?) who I think I ran into on Johns Brook. All nice guys who liked to chat.

    • Ron Konowitz says:

      Spencer Cram was the Caretaker at the Johns Brook Outpost for the Original Conservation Department and continued for a time as Caretaker under the newly re-organized and renamed DEC.

  6. David Gibson says:

    Right on, Pete Nelson and commenters. Thank you very much. Note that that recruitment of people of color and of women among the ranks of rangers (and other DEC divisions) is pretty important. This takes real commitment from the top at DEC (and above DEC, as in the Governor). Also, note that the type of training DEC Forest Ranger recruits receive at the Training Academy is key to the “ambassadorship” roles Pete highlights. Unfortunately, for many years that joint academy has been dominated by the more police-oriented environmental conservation officers. Forest Rangers need their own training academy or at least be on a par with the ECOs in terms of training opportunities.

    • Vanessa says:

      I have wondered about this! I read through the training program once, and it looked a lot more “law enforcement”-esque than I would have thought necessary. I mean, what do I know, but it seems like there just aren’t a lot of situations where a Ranger will encounter violent crime.

  7. Bob Meyer says:

    Thanks Pete. Well said as always.
    This has been true for a long time; ever since the huge upsurge in hikers [many novice and unprepared]. Combined with fewer Rangers and the unfortunate shift from backcountry educators to front country law enforcement, the present reality is a prime example of misplaced priorities and politics getting in the way of common sense. I’ve been hiking/ climbing/ camping in the Adirondacks throughout the Park since the 1950s and what I see today, more and more searches and rescues, should be unacceptable! Just read the reports. The current Ranger staff is terribly overworked and that’s an understatement.
    I pine [pun intended] for the days of interaction with wonderful Rangers in the woods.

    One more thing: I’m going to say, CHARGE people for the expense of search and rescue if they are found to be irresponsible in their actions!

    • ChapelPondGirl says:

      Bob, it’s my opinion that the answer to unprepared hikers is not charging fines to people who find themselves in unfortunate situations. That not only discourages people from enjoying the many benefits of nature, but it puts an undue financial burden on economically challenged communities who want to recreate, but maybe don’t know how to properly, or even more, don’t have access to all the expensive gear that is required. Preventative Education before those situations occur is what we need to focus on. Maybe finding communities who have not historically had access to nature and wild places and doing hands on education.

      The upfront financial cost to go for a short walk up to the Giants Nubble is significant, if we are asking that person to be fully prepared for emergencies. Backpack, boots, technical clothing, map, compass, rain gear, water bottles….that’s hundreds of dollars. If we want to be more inclusive and provide better access for people who can’t afford that we need to figure out how to overcome THAT obstacle, instead of treating those people like Reckless criminals by fining and ridiculing them.

      • Boreas says:

        Sorry, I don’t see the cost of proper gear keeping many people out of the woods. How much does an iPhone and cellular service cost? Most groups seem to have at least one. How about a car to get to the trailhead? Automobile insurance? Food? Lodging?

        If you are talking backcountry skiing or rock/ice climbing, then yes, some people may be excluded because of cost. A map and compass – $20. Flashlight – $10. Water bottle – $10. Day pack – $50. Shoes – $100. Proper summer synthetic clothing – $100. And these items don’t need to be exclusively used for hiking. Used gear can be found at garage sales and many retailers. And all can typically be used for years.

        If you are talking backcountry skiing or rock/ice climbing, paddling, etc., then yes, some people may be excluded because of cost. However, it shouldn’t be assumed that people who are found to be unprepared do not own the proper gear or cannot afford it. Often, it is a conscious decision not to bring or wear proper gear. Sometimes gear can be forgotten. Trailhead signage and stewards advise people on proper gear and safety equipment. But most importantly, even if you are an individual of insufficient means to equip yourself properly for the backcountry, wouldn’t it still be irresponsible to proceed without it?

        But I do agree with you that the key is education prior to entering the backcountry. Then one can learn how much the activity can cost, financially and life and limb, prior to setting out. There simply aren’t enough emergency personnel to allow backcountry education simply by trial and error.

      • Bob Meyer says:

        Hi Chapel Pond Girl,
        Let’s cut to the chase. I understand and sympathise with your concern and, especially in light of all that has happened recently, all the societal and racial implications. Yes education and a welcoming attitude are vital for ALL the right reasons. In reality, my experience, and it seems that of others in the woods who experience novice and unprepared people, is not the inability to afford equipment, but mostly young to middle aged white folks, who drive up in their cars, who choose not avail themselves of the plentiful educational opportunities that are plastered all around the High Peaks accessible on their phones before entering the woods. Their lack of equipment is more by choice, not affordability. And, you don’t need ALL the high tech stuff you mentioned…that’s another discussion.
        For those communities and people who are economically challenged, there are rentals as an alternative , at least to start out. May I also suggest that the communities and businesses in the High Peaks area [Keene, Lk. Placid, Saranac Lk. and hopefully soon Newcomb, N. Hudson, and organizations like ADK [I’m a 50 + year member] 46ers, and others establish some kind of assistance along with outreach to people who want to experience the woods and who need economic assistance and help getting started.
        The Adirondack Diversity Initiative is a good place to start. They are good folks really trying to do good things.

      • AK67 says:

        Heeding advice is typically FREE. All the stewardship on the planet can’t educate those who don’t want to take the time to listen to sage advice or expend the effort to learn. This is a small percentage of people coming to the area but often the ones who find themselves in need of assistance due to lack of knowledge or experience. This is a demographic that should be targeted for education; socioeconomic status and ethnicity have nothing to do with it.

        • Boreas says:

          I agree. And what is actually REPORTED as incidents may not be an accurate reflection of how many people in the backcountry who are under-prepared. Patrolling Rangers could often sniff out these individuals or groups and give them some “guidance”. I use the past tense because this interaction seems to increasingly be a thing of the past. But with recent trail usage increases, we can’t even expect an army of patrolling Rangers to be the source of basic backcountry skills and education. Requiring basic backcountry knowledge and planning skills prior to arriving at the trailhead seems to be a logical solution to minimize incidents and increase safety.

  8. Vanessa says:

    Very thoughtful article, thank you Pete! I did not know this history and am happy to have learned it. 🙂

    I agree 100% that forest rangers have the most impact in the woods helping folks feel comfortable in the wilderness. Here are some ideas for ways to help them do that besides for just hiring more rangers (which I have supported for years btw – but which seems challenging to convince the state to pursue…)

    Idea one: targeted (limited but impactful!) infrastructure in places that need it to support regional tourism. Looking directly at your home town regarding this, for better or worse. If we don’t want rangers to be parking ticket writers, we have to be direct in funneling visitors to places they can leave their car. Keene officials have already figured out that that location is Marcy field – correct – and so let’s just build a visitor center similar to HPIC at the Loj. Staff at that visitor center could also do front-end education which will further free up ranger time for the back country. Hec, add a playground & burger joint (I’m still weirded out by seeing this at the Loj) and a certain contingent probably won’t even get past this center. Frees up resources all around.

    Idea two: only Ranger Van Laer appears to have gotten the memo that social media engagement is powerful, and many kudos to him. Your average tourist in the year of our lord 2020 isn’t reading the almanack or even the NY tourism website – they’re on Twitter, insta, etc.

    I do feel there is a local aversion to social media because it’s brought so many new people, many of them of different backgrounds than your average hiker of the 70s. Further, a lot of writers have correctly pointed out that the wilderness ethos being referred to in this piece, while valuable for sure, is quite dated in terms of who can access it and relate to it.

    For example – I’ve met female rangers in the woods, but never seen them represented in any media referencing the forest service. Why would promoting more diverse voices address your thesis here? By again freeing up resources because social media can provide a LOT of education. Ranger Van Laer has reached 1000s of people, and his personal account is a lot more approachable than the DEC official or etc. I found this article because he linked to it!

    Finally, idea three: engage the public more directly in campaigns like the push to add more rangers. This would not be the job of government, but the ADK is fortunate to have an abundance of non-profits and advocacy groups to help drive the conversation.

    • Boreas says:

      All good points Vanessa!!

    • Ron Konowitz says:

      Your idea number 1 is not entirely correct. Having lived in Keene for the past 4 decades I have NEVER seen the spike in traffic we have experienced in the Town of Keene over the past 3 years.
      Promotion for Tourism is great (to a point) until it reaches a critical crossroads where the Wilderness Natural Resource is compromised and the Private Property rights as well as the Small Town way of life for those Citizens living in the Town of Keene is negatively impacted by such mega traffic increase patterns and access flash mob mentality.
      The ADK Park is comprised of 6 million acres of both Private and Public Lands. Although the split is basically 50-50 in the Town of Keene 85% of the Town is owned by NYS. However, NYS owns very few of the Trailheads (access points) in the Town of Keene.
      Between the Route 73 Roaring Brook Trailhead for Giant and the Cascade Lakes NYS owns NO TRAILHEADS. Most of these Privately owned Trailheads contain trails for a mile or more across Private Land (bear or past Private Homes) to access NYS Forest Preserve Lands.
      Although the Town of Keene has been utilizing the Marcy Field Parking Lot as a Shuttling point for the privately owned Garden Parking Lot the Town has rejected the idea of a Visitor Center /Hamburger Stand /Permanent Structure/Permanent Larger Parking Area on the Town of Keene owned Marcy Field.
      Since NYS owns 85% of the Land in the Town of Keene perhaps NYS should construct some parking facilities /shuttle stops on NYS Property.
      The NYS Forest Preserve Lands along Routes 73 and Route 9N are classified both Wilderness and Wild Forest. These public access points that NYS owns are along one of the busiest Highways in the Adirondacks.
      Additional Parking lots have been approved in the Chapel Pond area but have been on hold due to lawsuits from the Environmental Community. Additionally, an ideal location for this Information Center exists near the intersection of Route 9N-73 near the bottom of Spruce Hill. (This is not the Field where everyone parks now to take photos )
      The Hammond Pond Wild Forest contains a portion of Land that borders on that intersection. This access point would be an ideal location for a new trail up Baxter Mountain since NYS owns none of the other access points or trails to Baxter Mountain. This parking area in the Hammond Pond Wild Forest could also serve as a Shuttle stop and info center for DEC.
      Perhaps it’s time for the Environmental Community to get behind allowing NYS to build some parking facilities on a minuscule percentage of the over 3 million acres of NYS Forest Preserve Lands to help solve this issue in the Town of Keene instead of forcing the Town to deal with this access issue thru development on the limited 15 % of Privately/Town owned lands in and around our villages and neighborhoods.

      And yes, I agree with Pete Nelson about Education, Stewardship, and Ambassador Roles being critical today more than ever.
      However, our Highly Trained NYS Forest Rangers are the most dedicated, selfless, professional individuals you will find anywhere in this Country. They are currently being overwhelmed by this same Tourism Bureau /Social Media driven spike in usage and access issues. There has a better balance…..

    • ChapelPondGirl says:

      Vanessa I can tell you that Scott Van Laer isn’t/wasn’t the only Ranger (he’s retired now) that has been using social media as a way to compassionately educate. I know of another Ranger that has been doing educational videos on social media for the past five years or so. :):):)

  9. Constance F Brown says:

    Yes, yes! Any idea how we can help from afar?

  10. Philip Brousseau says:

    A very good articulate, to the point and true article. The role of the rangers as protectors of the wilderness, educators of the public and who have a unique skill set in firefighting, wilderness rescue and wild land management is in serious jeopardy of being lost and being lost forever.

    In the day, the local ranger was your first source of information about hiking, camping, leave no trace, avoidance of animal encounters and the unique features of their patrol district especially in the remote interior of the areas they were responsible for. They knew the area like the back of their hand since they patrolled it regularly. It’s hard to know your district from the inside of a trucks or when your day is spent writing tickets.

    A very good friend of mine was a ranger who recently retired. He was an old school ranger who believed strongly in the role the ranger played in the wilderness as an educator and a protector. He was horrified that they were being forced to take on more police responsibility at the expense of their traditional roles.

    We need the rangers back in the woods, we need the rangers back in the woods educating the public, we need the rangers back in the woods protecting the wilderness, we need the rangers back in the woods doing the job that were originally created and formed to do. It is through our combined voice that we can put the rangers back in the woods where they belong.

    • Suzanne says:

      Philip, you are so right. Rangers need to range rather than forced to be traffic cops, which is what the State Police are supposed to do. Years ago, my husband and I walked up the west branch of the Boquet to our favourite spot, only to find graffiti spray painted on the rocks and trash everywhere. Horrified, we cleaned up as best we could, and I wrote to Ranger Pete Fish to ask if we could come back with wire brushes to scrape off the paint, and his response was memorable. He replied that he would be thankful for the help, and said that the vandalism had occurred on his day off and he upset about that–“I should have been there,” said he. He felt guilty about taking one single day off, probably to mow his lawn. We do indeed need more Rangers, dedicated to caring for our woods and hills. How can we make our voices heard?

  11. Zephyr says:

    I’m old enough to remember the “old” rangers and have had some unfortunate meetings with the “new” rangers. The new ones are often cut from the same mold as the arrogant, my way or the highway modern police force that is one of the causes of the current social unrest. The last time I ran into a ranger (on the road) it was to get a lecture about how I was doing something that was not illegal, not unsafe, but apparently not the way the ranger wanted it done. It really incensed him that I disagreed with his harangue and told him so. Luckily, I was with a group of people and he eventually backed off realizing that I had witnesses. Frankly, I think he was just having a bad day, but still not an attitude that would be welcoming to a newby who might actually be in violation of some rule.

  12. Bob Meyer says:


    I/ we would love to know what it was you were doing ?

    • Zephyr says:

      Driving behind the ranger on a snowy road. He was obviously having trouble controlling his fishtailing truck while I was in complete control. He stopped, blocked the road, and walked back to tell me I was traveling too close and that he should give me a ticket for unsafe driving or something. I was well back and well within my braking distance traveling below the speed limit keeping a close eye on him because he was obviously not under total control. However, I had three people in the car, all safely belted, who were eye witnesses.

      • Dana says:

        Curious if it was a Ranger or an ECO.

        • Zephyr says:

          Definitely a Ranger. I am not going to name names, but someone I knew of and still works up there.

          • Boreas says:

            Hopefully he was just having an overly stressful day being forced to drive a crappy vehicle in a snowstorm. As a professional myself, I too have my lapses in professionalism.

  13. Bob Meyer says:

    Yeah, on the face of it, sounds like he was having a bad day.
    I would as well if I were a Ranger expecting to spend most of my time in the woods, but ended up being mostly a traffic cop.

  14. Brian says:

    Hi Pete Nelson,
    I have a great interest in the history of upstate New York, especially the Adirondacks and the Champlain Valley. I just purchased an interesting business document signed by Totten & Crossfield in 1767. I would like to have your contact info. so we can share some of our findings with each other. — Best wishes, Brian

  15. Noel A. Sherry says:

    Hello Pete, I was looking for your contact info after reading your ADK ALMK article from Apr 6, 2013, “Lost Brook Dispatches: The Discovery of Lost Brook Tract,” as I was looking for info on surveyor (and Judge) John Richards. I esp related to your comment about you and your wife reading his survey journal and walking the line to find a Corner he left 200 years ago, what a thrill that was. So I am doing the same near my lake, Twitchell Lake in Big Moose, NY, looking for the Corner of Township 42-42 on the Totten & Crossfield West Line, and I think I have found it but have to go back to clear it off, as a Frank Tweedy, Colvin’s SW Assistant, led me to where it is in his survey journal of 1879. That is thrilling even if I have not found the large stone BM yet, or the cairn nearby marking that corner. It was a very important landmark and John Richards surveyed it in about 1815 or 16, also marking that corner. Which led me on a search for Richard’s survey journals from the T&C work and his work near my lake. Do you know where those are available? What is the title of the book about Richards? Your info was helpful. I think some of my research questions on the history of my lake may be answered in Richard’s survey journals. Thanks for any help you could give. I am working on an article for NY ALMK now on Frank Tweedy. My email is

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