ADIRONDACKS — It was the most dramatic rescue in recent history: On Dec. 12, 2016, a state police helicopter swooped across windswept Mt. Algonquin and recovered two young hikers who had been stranded in a snowstorm.
The search for Maddie Popilizio and Blake Alois took two days and involved more than two dozen state Department of Environmental Conservation forest rangers, plus environmental conservation officers, state police and volunteers, at a cost difficult to calculate because multiple agencies were involved. Elite forest rangers reached the couple first and helped warm them and ready them to be lifted off the mountain by the helicopter.
And while that rescue made national headlines, costly search-and-rescue incidents that last days and involve large overtime costs happen several times a year, said High Peaks Forest Ranger Scott VanLaer, one of the first rangers to reach Popolizio and Alois.
“An incident that goes around the clock is probably six per year, and that’s just in my area,” said VanLaer, a union delegate for the Police Benevolent Association of New York State, which represents DEC law enforcement personnel.
With the number of such operations in the Adirondacks rising each year — as more people, often poorly prepared, take to High Peaks trails — the union is pushing for the state to hire more forest rangers to deal with a workload that is taxing both physically and psychologically.
According to the PBA, in 2012, the High Peaks ranger district handled 62 search-and-rescue missions, and conducted 2,636 miles of foot patrol, issuing 329 tickets and giving 16 public presentations.
By 2016, the number of searches had risen to 98, and the miles patrolled dropped to 1,834. The number of tickets dropped to 49, and the number of public presentations fell to two.
Rescue calls often come in the evening, when rangers are off duty, meaning they must be called out for overtime.
In the 2015-16 fiscal year, a $1.85 million Division of Forest Protection overtime budget was overspent by $281,495, according to state records The Daily Gazette obtained through a Freedom of Information Law request. In 2016-17, the $1.86 million overtime budget was overspent by $416,422.
“There’s always going to be long days and big overtime because of the nature of the job,” said VanLaer, 45, who is a second-generation Adirondack ranger and has worked in the High Peaks since 1999. He said he is the youngest ranger assigned to the High Peaks.
In response to the PBA, DEC officials said they’re making moves to beef up the statewide forest ranger force, though there was no specific commitment to add rangers in the High Peaks region. There are now 138 rangers, they said, up from a recent low of 111 in 2011
“We are committed to ensuring that ranger staffing remains at historically high levels,” DEC Commissioner Basil Seggos said in a prepared statement. “In 2016 and 2017, we were able to hold the first back-to-back (training) academies in decades, and we are already in the planning stages of the next academy.”
But any increase in staffing may be barely enough to keep up with a growing workload, as state promotion efforts and Internet buzz bring more visitors to the High Peaks, where the highest mountains and some of the most spectacular scenery in the Adirondacks are concentrated.
The Memorial Day holiday historically brings out thousands of hikers. VanLaer and other rangers will be working, and he anticipates rescue calls.
“It isn’t just the number of searches, it’s that we have to be prepared for it. We know on a popular hiking weekend, you almost have to expect it,” VanLaer said. “It’s to the point where I’m almost on pins and needles waiting for the phone to ring.”
Proposed changes DEC is considering in how popular Adirondack hiking trails are managed, as well as proposed recreation trails on the recently acquired Boreas Ponds wilderness tract, are other reasons the PBA says more rangers are needed.
“There’s not enough staff for us to do the complete job anymore, and it’s the routine backcountry patrols that suffer,” VanLaer said.
The increase in public use of the Adirondacks has meant more crowding at parking lots near popular trailheads in the High Peaks, forcing rangers to deal with issues around parking lots instead of patrolling in the backcountry.
“The PBA of NYS fully supports the draft amendments to the High Peaks Wilderness and the Vanderhacker Wild Forest; however, we are concerned that while these amendments are well thought-out and comprehensive, we don’t want them to become another unfunded mandate,” said Dan DeFedericis, the state PBA’s executive director.
There are 15 rangers dedicated to the High Peaks and Vanderwhacker areas now. With the proposed changes and recent additions to state land holdings, the PBA said there needs to be 26 rangers available, including a doubling of the number in the northern High Peaks, from six to 12.
The PBA’s comments come as the state Department of Environmental Conservation and the Adirondack Park Agency weigh changes to the unit management plans, including relocating and expanding parking lots in the High Peaks, and building new trails just to the south, on the Boreas Ponds tract.
The rangers contend that having more search-and-rescue incidents cuts into their time for conducting routine patrols, issuing tickets and giving public educational presentations. Large searches also draw rangers from other parts of the Adirondack Park to the High Peaks, leaving gaps in their coverage.
“Rangers are now forced to remain in the frontcountry to handle parking issues and maintain a state of readiness for search-and-rescue operations,” the union said in a prepared statement.
Many rescue calls come from people who are lost or surprised by darkness and mostly need to be calmed down, but VanLaer said it is often best for rangers to hike in and then walk them out to the trailhead. Some calls, however, involve people who are injured while hiking and need intensive help.
Adirondack rangers typically work hundreds of hours of overtime each year. VanLaer, a 22-year veteran, had a base salary of $70,735, but actually earned $97,541 in 2017, thanks to overtime, according to state records.
VanLaer acknowledged that hiring more rangers could reduce the amount of overtime current rangers are earning, but he said it would be worth it in a larger sense.
“I think the individual ranger’s salary would go down if our changes were implemented, but the quality of life of the individual ranger would go up,” VanLaer said.
In his statement, DEC Commissioner Seggos acknowledged rangers “go above and beyond the call of duty on a daily basis,” and said the state is investing in equipment like drones to help rangers do their jobs more safely and efficiently.
Seggos said rangers also aren’t working alone: There are 22 assistant rangers assigned across the state, and there are various summit and backcountry stewards provided by organizations like the Student Conservation Association, Wildlife Conservation Society, and the Adirondack Mountain Club.
DEC officials said they have also stepped up their efforts to use social media to educate High Peaks hikers about the importance of preparation and safety, and to link inexperienced hikers with more-experienced hikers to help guide them and to teach how to minimize their impact on the environment.
VanLaer said the help of others is needed and appreciated, “but in the backcountry, you really need a ranger.”
Reach Daily Gazette reporter Stephen Williams at 518-395-3086, [email protected] or @gazettesteve on Twitter.
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