Thursday, February 3, 2022

Budget Winners and Losers

ranger rescue

As one who paused this week to listen to the Environmental Budget hearing in the State Legislature’s Ways and Means and Finance Committees, one could not help but notice the budget winners and losers. In a year when state revenues are up and available resources seem bottomless, just staying even appears as a loss.

Climate: Few members of the State Legislature asked probing questions of state officials. Most of the day was spent in testimony related to meeting the goals, objectives and specific greenhouse gas emission reduction targets of the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act of 2019. Now that the enormous scope of work to meet the state’s 2030 and 2040 emission reduction targets has just been drafted and released for public comment, will there be enough DEC and NYSERDA staff to implement the Act?  Good question.

Judging from the General Fund and  Environmental Protection Fund account increases this year, the climate staffing trend is up. The environmental quality, including climate, side of the DEC staffing accounts for two-thirds of the proposed increase of 94 new DEC staff positions. Water quality issues are acute in the North Country and across the state, so this increase is fully justified.

Within the annual Environmental Protection Fund, Climate Adaptation and Mitigation accounts for  a full one-quarter, or 25% of the $100 million proposed growth in the EPF. Of that $25 million increase for Climate, $2 million is spent on “climate coordinators.” Their job descriptions and this line item were not probed by state legislators, at least not during the time I was listening.

$4 million dollars are added to the EPF Climate Adaptation account across the State. That is appropriate, but how will it be invested? Interestingly, $12 million from the EPF is added to help farms become more climate resilient, which could be a very positive fund to be tapped by farmers in the Champlain and St. Lawrence valleys.

ADI/VICs: It is disappointing that the EPF lines for the Adirondack Diversity Initiative ($250,000), Paul Smiths Visitor Interpretive Center ($180,000) and Newcomb VIC ($120,000) remained flat within the Governor’s EPF budget. The ADI undertakes groundbreaking, courageous anti-racism work throughout the Adirondacks. The two VICs are making a maximum effort to expand Adirondack educational and recreational programs. All three programs asked for and deserved increases.

DEC forest, natural resource, and enforcement staff appear to be growing this year after years of remaining flat. It is good to see State Land Stewardship funds grow by $15 million within the EPF. Twelve new law enforcement staff, 12 new lands and forests staff and over 20 new fish and wildlife staff are also added under the Governor’s budget. How those new staff resources are actually allocated within DEC programs is unclear at present, and few legislators asked about that – with the exception of the DEC Forest Rangers.

Forest Rangers: State Senators Stec and Hinchey were among the legislators who asked DEC Commissioner Seggos if more Forest Rangers would be hired because of the Governor’s budget proposal. The Commissioner’s elliptical answer was to point to the upcoming Forest Ranger and Environmental Conservation Officer training academies where, the Commissioner stated, there would be up to 40 new Ranger recruits.

However, we know from experience that many, if not all Ranger recruits who persist through the training and are hired to go into the field merely replace retiring DEC Forest Rangers. This is akin to treading water. As to actual Ranger staffing increases, the Commissioner was non-committal, so that without state legislative leadership insisting on new Forest Rangers in this year’s budget the status quo will remain in place.

The need to diversify the Forest Ranger and other DEC staff positions is also acute. Forest Rangers, as well as other DEC staff, should look like the rest of New York. Budgets and efforts to expand recruitment of DEC personnel within cities, businesses and on campuses across the state and beyond the state are insufficient.

The overall status quo for the DEC Forest Rangers should be unacceptable to the public and to their representatives in Albany. Forest Rangers are stretched far too thin.  With just over 100 field Forest Rangers across the state and about a dozen supervisors, Forest Ranger full-time staff are down by about 20 from today’s authorized level of 134.  There are the same number of Forest Rangers today than engaged with the recreating public in 1970 when our public lands and easements were half the acreage of today. With less than half the public land acreage to protect, Yellowstone National Park employs almost three times the number of Rangers than we do for all our public lands across the State of New York.

Our New York State Rangers are front line workers, conducting patrols, search and rescue, communication with and educational messaging for the public flocking here in large numbers. Over a ten-year span, search and rescue emergencies led by Rangers have grown by more than 33%.

Public lands, including Adirondack and Catskill Forest Preserve and conservation easements on private lands have grown by 2 million acres since 1970. With the number of field rangers stuck at 1970 levels each ranger is responsible for an additional 20,000 acres on average, on top of their areas of responsibility 50 years ago.

ranger budgetranger budget

Adirondack Wild is asking for 40 new Forest Rangers in this year’s budget, knowing that in fact the total Ranger force needs to be doubled to meet the needs for care, stewardship, public education and protection within our Adirondack and Catskill Forest Preserve, State Forests and on our waterways.

Also, Governor Hochul has vetoed legislation passed last year that would place the Forest Ranger retirement plan on a par with the State Police and other police agencies. That veto does not help the recruitment and retention of DEC Forest Rangers.

Contact the Governor and your representatives in Albany with your budget concerns: Governor Hochul, 518-474-8390, https://www.governor.ny.gov/content/governor-contact-form.

Photo at top: Assistant Forest Ranger, certified Wilderness First Responder, and Emergency Medical Technician Christine Raudonis splinting a hiker’s broken leg at the summit of Upper Wolfjaw in preparation for a hoist mission. DEC/file photo

 

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David Gibson

Dave Gibson, who writes about issues of wilderness, wild lands, public policy, and more, has been involved in Adirondack conservation for over 30 years as executive director of the Association for the Protection of the Adirondacks, executive director of Protect the Adirondacks and currently as managing partner with Adirondack Wild: Friends of the Forest Preserve

During Dave's tenure at the Association, the organization completed the Center for the Forest Preserve including the Adirondack Research Library at Paul Schaefer’s home. The library has the finest Adirondack collection outside the Blue Line, specializing in Adirondack conservation and recreation history.

Currently, Dave is managing partner in the nonprofit organization launched in 2010, Adirondack Wild: Friends of the Forest Preserve.




10 Responses

  1. JB says:

    I think that 40 additional rangers is an admirable and justified goal. However, by over-focusing on ranger recruitment, we run the risk of misattributing the problems caused by systemic mismanagement and overuse to a simple “lack of enforcement” (or education). In reality, no amount of enforcement and education will ever be enough to compensate for the trickle-down effects of bad policy. Of course, even policy cannot “solve” these problems. Nothing can. The problems that we have in the Adirondacks, and arguably globally, can only be managed, holistically and presciently.

    The allocation for 32 planning and wildlife staff to the DEC workforce is potentially an enormous leap forward in that regard. Let us hope that they are filled with well-qualified and talented individuals who will be empowered to implement smart planning and management for our state lands. It is true that more does not always equal better outcomes, but it certainly can.

    Lastly, on the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act: the Draft Scoping Plan, as all-encompassing as it is, appears (in places) to very much suffer from the same type of short-term thinking that we have seen come out of other New York State bureaucratic efforts. A major area of concern for me, and an example of this type of short-term mentality, is Ch. 15, “Agriculture and Forestry”. There is a profound emphasis placed upon state efforts to rapidly scale up the NY forestry industry as a vehicle for meeting net carbon mandates (“[t]o maximize New York forests carbon sequestration potential, it is critical that forest management activities increase statewide”). And yet there are few countermeasures to protect ecosystems and biodiversity, without which we may well not have a comparable forestry industry in the future at all–as we now are faced with the growing spectre of invasive species, dysgenics and habitat loss. Everything is multi-faceted.

    Again, our success vis a vis the environment depends upon long-term thinking–coincidentally in a time when vision for the future appears to be near an all-time low. Of course, some will argue that I am underselling our achievements, that I am just not looking back far *enough*. But I contend that it is all too easy to consider ourselves visionaries in the present day–especially when we are not looking enough towards the future!

  2. LeRoy Hogan says:

    I like the idea of a forest ranger retirement plan on par with other police agencies. Sent my thoughts to the governor.

  3. Raymond Budnick says:

    There are no barriers at the Forest Ranger and Environmental Conservation Officer training academies stopping any person of color from applying for training and going through with such.
    To state that diversity in the DEC needs addressed now. insinuates that the problem is at the level of staff promotion and hiring. Such an open-ended comment is erroneous and slightly incendiary.
    Instead, let’s all do our part to continue with the introduction of the outdoors to cultures not akin to such, through friends, family and programs. Then as time goes on a genuine diversification of interested candidates will follow.

  4. Bob Hogan says:

    Budgets should be tied to specific goals and outcomes vs. arbitrary increase/decreased staff/other resources. State legislatures not questioning “department effectiveness” (again, based on success factors) is simply tossing money in the wind.

    • Boreas says:

      What good does Albany questioning effectiveness do when the Commissioner keeps stating we have an “adequate” Ranger staff. While this may be true state-wide, it is certainly NOT true in the Park. Why not ask RANGERS if they feel they are properly staffed?? If staffing was “adequate”, we wouldn’t be burning out Rangers with routine overtime. Indeed, the retirement age not being lowered for Rangers was sure a sign of this disconnect. A Ranger in the flatland just does not have the same issues as a Ranger in the Park – especially the HPW. Rangers need to recharge just like any other human.

      40 prospective Rangers entering the academy is certainly better than nothing, but does not address the basic problem of Ranger risk, stress, fatigue, and attrition in the Park – let alone the lack of available feet on the ground for routine patrolling. Those 40 candidates are to fill gaps statewide – not the Park.

      Perhaps the idea of candidate externships to the Park should be entertained. Rotate some of those 40 candidates toward the end of their schooling (like in medical and other professions) to the Adirondacks to experience the more extreme aspects of being a Ranger, while helping with feet on the ground patrolling and trailhead education. It could add time to their schooling, but also could take some of the pressure off working Rangers – many of which would also like to do some routine patrolling that they don’t have time for now. Often, this is the best way for Rangers to recharge – routine time spent in the woods – not responding to emergencies.

  5. Nathan says:

    rangers and possibly conservation officers in the Adirondacks have the most strenous work conditions of any officer in New york state. they are routinly going into the mountains and hiking. climbing, searching for people. it is far more demanding work than any regular state trooper in the state. Yet Rangers and ECO’s are amount the worst compensated in the state. Extremely unfair, most NYs troopers could not hike for an entire day in the ADK park. The wear and tear over years of such exertion are hard and by time Rangers reach 45-50 they are much more likely to be injured and not up to the extreme hardships of their positions. they deserve the ame benifits as the rest of the states law enforcement. BOO on the governer’s lack of care..
    Lastly the entire state of New York is horribly understaffed at the DEC, ranger level. In my entire life life i have never once been asked to see my hunting license in the ADK, ive only been asked to see my fishing license on lake champlain, not once on the hudson, boreas, long lake ect. i have only seen a few rangers on a trail in decades of hiking and camping. but i constanly see jerks throwing trash and horrible leanto sites, but never can report until days later and people who did it long gone. there is starting to be some cell phone but yet cannot just text a picture to DEC and say these people are doing this…. perfect example of boreas river bridge area, no cell, not any real patrol, but i have repeatedly seen, garbage everywhere, campers throwing bottles all over, drug use, and drunk driving…call cops~cant, leave my camp with bunch of idiots, drive 30 plus minutes to call, go back, find my stuff stolen or vandalized…ive had several canoes stolen right off my suv, lanterns, coolers, tents. it has become horrible with all the trashy people showing up from the cities and crime rates. need way more law enforcement and patrols

    • Boreas says:

      Nathan,

      Your tales of theft and vandalism must hurt. But are you sure the miscreants are driving from the cities just to steal a canoe and vandalize camps? I am not saying it doesn’t happen, but I would think it more likely the canoes are being stolen by more local thieves and fenced elsewhere or simply kept by the thief. There are indeed criminals living amongst us. How many?? Who knows? I don’t see the Adirondacks being particularly appealing to downstate criminals.

    • Boreas says:

      Sorry – I meant to add that Seggos has stated the State Police are in place to help Rangers whenever necessary. I would think theft and vandalism would be in their purview more than Rangers. But I wonder who shows up, if anyone?

  6. Martin Korn says:

    I fully agree with the opinions stated. The needs are great; the resources finite.
    NB: the Town of Schroon is now a CEC.
    The Schroon Lake Association (founded in 1911!) strongly supports the Town’s environmental activities; and the SLA continues to actively and successfully preserve and protect the Schroon Lake watershed.
    Thank you for what you do.
    Martin W. Korn MD

  7. Mike says:

    More waste of tax dollars.

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