Forest rangers: Thanks, but no thanks, on pay raise

Union wary of consolidating with conservation officers, prefers boost in staffing
Forest ranger Scott van Laer has been outspoken in his calls for the state to hire more rangers.
Forest ranger Scott van Laer has been outspoken in his calls for the state to hire more rangers.

ALBANY — The union representing the state’s frontline forest rangers last month rejected a potential pay raise, calling on officials to instead invest the money in increased staffing and new equipment.

The pay raise was tied to a move to consolidate the forest ranger job title into the environmental conservation officer position and helped touch off a fresh wave of concerns that state officials are looking to merge the state Department of Environmental Conservation’s two key public safety divisions: the Forest Rangers focused on protecting the state’s forest preserve and the Environmental Conservation Officers charged with enforcing the state’s environmental laws across the state.

A proposal to consolidate the two positions – at least within the formal civil service title system – would lift the pay of forest rangers, who historically have been paid less than their conservation officer counterparts. But the rangers fear the title consolidation could be a step toward a broader merger of the divisions and want DEC Commissioner Basil Seggos to focus on boosting ranger staffing levels, which the rangers and outside advocates have argued are inadequate to keep up with growing trail use and search and rescue demands in the Adirondacks.

“We want the [DEC] commissioner to maintain the forest ranger ranks as its own division, to strengthen it with more equipment and staff,” said Scott van Laer, head of the union that represents rank-and-file forest rangers and a ranger who works in the Adirondack High Peaks. “Rather than give us a raise, we would use those funds for that purpose.”

In arguing for what they see as the urgency of their staffing demands, forest rangers in recent years have garnered widespread support from local governments and advocacy groups. Yard signs carrying their central message, #AddNYRangers, have popped up throughout the park. Around half of the local governments in the Adirondacks adopted resolutions calling for increased ranger staffing, and environmental advocacy groups have added increased ranger staffing to their annual lists of legislative and funding priorities.

While the union in a December press release thanked Seggos for supporting a raise, it urged the department’s leader to instead invest in bolstering the ranks of the rangers and providing equipment that many rangers purchase with their own funds.

“A competitive salary is important for recruitment and should be revisited in the future, without a title change,” union leaders wrote in the release.

Van Laer said that many rangers have to purchase a litany of equipment out of their own pocket, including mountaineering boots and other cold-weather gear like crampons, climbing axes and puff jackets.

The rangers union, moreover, is concerned that a longstanding proposal to merge the rangers and the conservation officers into a single division may be gaining traction. Van Laer said its important to maintain the forest rangers as its own force because of the unique responsibilities and training that has been core to the force’s mission for over 100 years: combat forest fires, rescue people lost or injured in the backcountry and educate the public on stewardship of the state’s forest lands. Meanwhile, the environmental conservation officers are charged with enforcing hunting and fishing regulations, combating illegal pollution and carrying out other environmental laws throughout the state.

“To combine us into one Superman outfit is just going to water down both and make it easier for the department to hide vacancies,” van Laer said of a merger between the two divisions.

It’s not clear, though, where the title change – or the idea of a broader merger – stands within DEC. Van Laer said as far as he knows the title change is “pending.” The DEC’s director of human resources requested the title change in a letter to the state Department of Civil Service dated Nov. 20, 2018. In a statement released Friday, DEC did not clarify where that title change request stood currently.

“New York State Forest Rangers have been seeking a title upgrade for several years, and the DEC has been working with the Department of Civil Service to support an upgrade of the Ranger title,” DEC said in the statement, in language nearly identical to answers provided to reporters for about a year. “It was proposed that DEC Environmental Conservation Police Officers and Forest Rangers utilize the same title while maintaining separate divisions and responsibilities.”

In its statement, DEC makes clear that the title change is not a merger of the divisions and points to the way that biologists and engineers fall within the same position title in DEC even though they carry out different tasks.

“To be clear, this is not a merger of the two divisions, but rather a move to ensure both divisions are treated equally in the Civil Service system,” according to the statement.

But a move by state officials to actually merge the state’s park police force into the state police raised fresh concerns among green groups that a similar plan could be in the works for rangers and conservation officers. Various environmental groups in both the Adirondacks and Catskills in a letter last month urged Seggos to reject any proposals that would merge DEC’s two public safety divisions, writing that a merger would “trigger a firestorm of protest and prove a disaster for the state’s public lands and the outdoor recreating public.”

David Gibson, managing partner of Adirondack Wild, said environmental advocacy groups would “raise hell” if state officials pursued, or “seriously considered,” a merger of the forest ranger and conservation officer divisions within DEC. He said it is important to maintain the independence of the forest rangers, who the public have come to rely on as a source of knowledge and skill in wilderness rescue, education and stewardship.

“In the name of efficiency, we must not let the ECOs and rangers merge,” Gibson said. “I think it would be disastrous for morale and disastrous for stewardship of our public lands.”

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