All those state tourism ads to promote hiking in the Adirondacks seem to be having their desired effect.
That means more inexperienced individuals are taking on difficult hikes without a proper preparation and appreciation for the challenges of the Adirondack terrain and weather.
And that is taking its toll on the limited number of forest rangers available to search for these hikers when they get lost and to rescue them when they get injured or otherwise can’t get to civilization on their own.
With all the money the state is spending on tourism promotion, and all the money it’s likely collecting in additional tax revenue from gas and lodging sales, state lawmakers need to devote more money to expanding the corps of forest rangers.
Last year, state Department of Environmental Conservation forest rangers participated in 356 search-and-rescue missions, an average of about one every day.
These missions often include many hours or even days of searching through thick woods and steep trails in every weather condition imaginable — from heavy winds and torrential rain to deep snow and sub-zero temperatures.
The task is challenging enough with enough time for rest between events. But with the kind of pace they’re experiencing, the only solution to having enough fresh, rested rescuers available to serve the growing number of hikers is to increase the number of rangers.
In just the 13 days between Sept. 26 and Oct. 8, DEC forest rangers responded to 15 search-and-rescue incidents in the Adirondacks, according to a report in the Adirondack Almanack.
In just the last six days, rangers and other rescue crews responded to 12 emergencies, including a wild fire started by burning garbage.
Among the calls to which the crews responded:
A 79-year-old woman who’d become lost during a day hike; a helicopter rescue of a 15-year-old girl who broke her leg in a fall near Avalanche Pass in the High Peaks; an ATV rescue of a man who couldn’t complete the descent down Mount Marcy; a search for a 64-year-old woman who got lost in a dense swampy area; two women, aged 23 and 24, who became disoriented trying to climb five mountains in the Dix Mountain range; and the rescue of two 16-year-olds, hiking at night on Hackensack Mountain without lights, water or food and with a dying cell phone. They were found shortly after midnight after an exhaustive search.
While some of the hikers were local, others were from out of the Adirondack region, including Rochester, Rome, Albany, Illinois, Pennsylvania and Vermont, perhaps unfamiliar with the challenges of hiking in the Adirondacks.
While it’s true that the job of forest rangers is enhanced by State Police, local emergency services personnel and volunteers, it’s clear that the current level of manpower — 140 rangers for the entire state — is becoming strained.
Searches are exhausting — mentally and physically. A report by North Country Public Radio revealed that state officials are more and more calling on tired, stressed rangers because they have no other choice.
Rescuers are subject to exhaustion and burnout, not a condition you want when you rely on these individuals to keep the public safe.
No amount of warnings or scoldings to hikers about being prepared is going to eliminate the need for search and rescue operations. The problem is only going to get worse.
If the state wants to keep encouraging visitors to experience the Adirondacks, it’s going to have to invest more money in the number people whose duty it is to ensure those visitors’ safety.