State forest rangers are on track to register their third consecutive year with more than 300 search-and-rescue missions in state forestland, a tally rangers say necessitates a staffing boost.
Spurred by the Police Benevolent Association, the union that represents forest rangers, a handful of Adirondack towns and villages over the past month have adopted resolutions calling for an increase from the current 138 rangers to 175.
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The additional resources may be a tough sell in a tight budget year. And State Department of Environmental Conservation officials have said forest ranger staffing “is at its highest level in the history of the department.”
But the union argues that, with increases in the total acreage of state forest land, rangers are being asked to cover a larger and larger area.
Whereas a single ranger in 1970 would have been asked to cover just over 28,000 acres of forestland, a ranger in 2015 typically has responsibility for more than 53,000 acres, according to the resolution approved by local towns.
“Couple that with a very successful tourism campaign by the governor and the amount of land to patrol and the number of visitors per year has grown exponentially, and that’s what’s stressing the force,” said Gary Friedrich, director of the PBA’s forest ranger lieutenants association and a 23-year veteran of the forest rangers.
As the popularity of hiking in the Adirondacks, particularly the state’s 46 High Peaks, has surged in recent years, so has the number of hikers in need of help.
After hovering around 280 search-and-rescue missions annually from 2012 to 2014, rangers tallied their first-ever year with more than 300 rescue operations in 2015. That year, they conducted 341 missions, and in 2016 they carried out 356. This year, they are on track to top 340, according to the DEC.
Often, rangers are split among multiple rescue operations at the same time. Friedrich said he remembered a day this past summer when he manned five separate operations. Rangers leave one operation — after hours of hiking and climbing — only to join another operation.
“It’s very taxing on the existing personnel to go from one to another to another,” Friedrich said.
The increase in search missions has also cut into time rangers used to spend on other work, like patrolling thousands of miles of trails and providing education aimed at preventing dangerous wilderness experiences.
DEC officials have said they constantly monitor staffing and operational needs and pointed to the use of new technology, like drones, to assist in forest ranger missions. They also highlighted efforts by Adirondack advocacy groups to ramp up public education of trail use and safety, as well as the work of volunteer rescue crews.
“While the amount of acreage they steward has increased, rangers are trained to adapt to changing conditions, which they have effectively done to manage for this increase,” according to a statement provided by DEC spokesman Benning Delamater.
Friedrich acknowledged that progress has been made on the staffing front. Ranger academies over the past two years have bolstered the ranks, but not by enough, he said.
“The department has been positive; though they are saying we are at the highest level, they do acknowledge we need more rangers,” he said.
Recent rescues, including the mission that saved Niskayuna residents Blake Alois and Maddie Popolizio from the top of Algonquin Peak last December, have increased attention on the work of the rangers and their concerns about staffing. As two dozen rangers helped search for Alois and Popolizio in deep snow last year, ranger supervisors like Friedrich were balancing other operations at the same time.
“During that event, we were dealing with other things, because the world doesn’t stop when Blake and Maddie got lost,” Friedrich said. “They weren’t the only two out there.”
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