Almanack Contributor Scott van Laer

Scott van Laer

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.


Tuesday, September 4, 2018

NYS Wildfire Response Speaks To Ranger Staffing Crisis

Rangers next to their Engines in 1934 The last few years have brought a dramatic shift in fire behavior in the Western United States. Fires are more intense, more common in the wildland-urban interface, and the burning seasons are longer. Most fire professionals no longer even recognize “fire seasons” in parts of the country, but rather “fire years.” All of this is occurring while there is shrinking pool of human resources to fight fires.

The National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC), is the country’s support center for wildland firefighting. Its policy states that “Wildland fire recognizes no ownership or jurisdictional boundaries on the landscape; nor do the complex issues of fire management. As a result, perhaps nowhere is the practice of interagency and interdepartmental cooperation more prevalent and effective as in the nation’s wildland fire community.” » Continue Reading.


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. » Continue Reading.


Wednesday, July 19, 2017

NYS Forest Ranger Ranks Stagnant While Workload Rises

Forest Ranger Rob Praczkajlo covers the district just east of the High Peaks Wilderness, namely the towns of Jay, Elizabethtown, and part of North Hudson. Due to the high rate of search and rescue operations in the adjacent High Peaks, he is just as likely to be found there as he is patrolling his own district.

The High Peaks district had more than 100 emergency incidents in 2015 and they do not occur in a vacuum. They are not handled exclusively by the half dozen rangers stationed there. Rangers from all parts of the Adirondacks, and the Forest Preserve they protect, are affected by the drain from so many incidents. The following chronicles one week in July for Ranger Praczkajlo. » Continue Reading.


Sunday, May 14, 2017

1967 Stony Creek Search for 11-Year-Old Debbie Butler

Search for 11-Year-Old Debbie ButlerWhen historians look through archival photos, it can be difficult to analyze an image’s authenticity. The question is not whether the image is genuine, per say, but how frank or candid the photo really is. This can be especially challenging when looking through photographs taken by government agencies who, understandably, have an agenda and often preserved images that were created with a certain narrative in mind. This is why, while the historic photos of Forest Rangers that graced the glossy pages of the Conservationist Magazine have become iconic, I tend to prefer to obtain photos from the rangers personal collections. » Continue Reading.


Tuesday, April 12, 2016

More Stories About The Dangerous Work of NYS Forest Rangers

ranger grover smith & dan mckenzieAutumn of 1948 had been a particularly dry season. Forest Rangers of that era often remained at their headquarters awaiting a phone call reporting the location of a blaze. The radio system of that time was poor but most outposts and fire towers were connected via phone line.

Daniel McKenzie, a 27 year veteran, was the Forest Ranger for North Hudson at the time and he lived on the Blue Ridge Road. A Ranger’s work schedule was much different then. During dry periods they stayed available all the time and they worked until the work was done. Ranger McKenzie, by all accounts, wore his uniform almost all the time. The Northway was decades away from construction and North Hudson was a more isolated community. In fact, McKenzie first came to the area prior to becoming a ranger to help construct State Route 9. » Continue Reading.


Tuesday, March 22, 2016

The Dangerous Work Of Adirondack Forest Rangers

Forest Rangers DEC PhotoForest Rangers are often thought to have an idyllic profession and it is an exceptional job, but not without risks. The terrain is often difficult and assistance hours away.

For example, during the recent recovery of hiker Hua Davis on MacNaughton, a Forest Ranger was accidentally submerged up to his chest in a freezing mountain brook – a perilous situation when you are 13 miles by trail from the nearest road.

Although New York State Forest Rangers have an excellent safety record, there have been numerous fatalities in the line of duty and many injuries. What follows are just a few examples. » Continue Reading.


Thursday, December 24, 2015

Forest Rangers And The ‘Christmas Detail’

Gib‘Tis the season for illegally cutting Christmas trees in the Adirondacks. That was the jingle, and it was followed by a stern warning from Conservation Department Commissioner Lithgow Osborne in December 1934 that his forest rangers would be on high alert for those attempting to steal their holiday cheer from the Forest Preserve:

“Forest Rangers are very much on guard this time of year because of the tendency of some persons to take trees from state land. Some of the newer forest plantations on state land offer a tempting array of Christmas trees and it is only by the exercise of constant vigilance on the part of the rangers that thefts can be prevented.” » Continue Reading.


Saturday, November 14, 2015

Forest Ranger History Is Rooted In The Forest Preserve

11037634_10205087400337684_4617104302708756954_nMost 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.” » Continue Reading.


Tuesday, January 6, 2015

The Barnes Family: Forest Preserve Protection Pioneers

billboardIn 1935, New York State held a large celebration commemorating 50 years of its Forest Preserve. The jubilee, with parades and the unveiling of a new monument, centered in Lake Placid and the list of attendees included Conservation Commissioner Lithgow Osborne, Governor Herbert Lehman and even President Franklin D. Roosevelt. New York had much to be proud of, having preserved “wild forest lands” for the previous 50 years with the promise of forever ahead.

A similar celebration would be held for the centennial, but the 50th anniversary resonates in a different way.  It was still close enough to the actual events, and many remembered them, along with the decades of debate over the appropriateness of forest lands to fend for themselves, remaining uncut and wild. » Continue Reading.


Sunday, November 9, 2014

Mysterious Aircraft Wreckage At Spruce Lake

IMGP0824I have spent the last several years researching and searching for historic plane crash sites in the Adirondacks. It’s much harder to find them then people would think. Only in the last couple decades with the proliferation of hand held GPS devices has precise mapping come about and historical references often contain errors in descriptions and locations. One plane I found was not even on the mountain that media and government reports listed for its location. This fall, wreckage from a crash found me; as of yet, no one has been able to explain it. » Continue Reading.


Wednesday, September 10, 2014

The 1981 Ampersand Mountain Search For Kate Dekkers

ampersandmtIn the summer of 1981, in the High Peaks Wilderness, an organized outing consisting of kids and counselors went on a day hike. Twelve children and two adults went up Ampersand Mountain on July 24th to enjoy a summer day in the Adirondacks. Only eleven children returned. A 10-year-old girl, 4-foot-ten-inches tall, wearing blue shorts and a red #88 football jersey went missing, separated from the rest of the group.

It’s the type of unfortunate, yet often preventable incident that regularly happens during summers in the Adirondacks. Most separations like this are solved within hours –  it would take four days to solve the mystery of what happened to young Kate Dekkers. » Continue Reading.


Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Recent Plane Crash Recalls 1989 Search For Aircraft

IMGP0624On Saturday July 19th, several people around the Lake Placid Airport witnessed the final moments of a small plane as it attempted a landing. The single-engine Mooney may have stalled, spiraling 200 feet to the ground before bursting into flames. It will be some time before the NTSB releases its findings. Investigators have already been to the scene and the plane has been removed from the crash site, just 40 feet from the River Road. This tragic event that took the lives of three people drew comparisons to a crash that occurred in the same vicinity 25 years ago.

On the March 1, 1989, pilot Paul Ffield departed from the Lake Clear airport for a very short flight to the Lake Placid airport in his twin engine Beech Baron N1729Q. He was forced to abort a landing at Lake Placid, just as happened last week, but in this case the cause was poor weather. It was believed Mr. Ffield turned to the south but no other landing attempt was observed. Lake Placid Airport manager and pilot Steve Short went airborne just a couple hours later to look for the plane. He returned without success, finding no sign of the plane or an Emergency Locating Transmitter (ELT) signal. » Continue Reading.


Monday, July 7, 2014

Search And Rescue Stories: Ranger Orville Betters

raquette fallsA striking old black and white photograph of a Forest Ranger posted on the NYSDEC Twitter feed recently caught my attention and captivated my imagination. The tweet read “Ranger w/pack basket putting up Canoe Carry Trail sign. Raquette Falls in the (Adirondacks) 1949.”

The ranger had a striking pose, wearing a Stetson, boots tightly laced half way to his knees. The ranger’s face was hidden from view, not surprising for a profession, that – especially then – toiled in the outdoors, their daily routine invisible to the public. I quickly tweeted back “Do you know who that is?”  Unfortunately no one did. » Continue Reading.