All of the state’s tourism ads inevitably contain at least one photo of a hiker standing atop a glorious mountain peak gazing off into the horizon at the kind of spectacular view only the Adirondacks and Catskills can provide.
The commercials are as effective as the lure of the experience is irresistible.
Each year, these two parks — with a combined 10,500 square miles of forest land — draw more and more visitors anxious for an outdoor experience within a day’s drive.
As a result, many of the most popular trails, and some more off the beaten path, have become crowded with hikers. Narrow mountain roads have become overflow parking for trail heads in which the original lots were designed to accommodate just the number of hikers the trails could handle.
While many more people of all ages and hiking abilities are heeding the commercials’ advice to explore New York’s parks, the number of state forest rangers who patrol the areas and conduct rescue operations for lost and injured hikers has not kept up pace with the growing demand and coverage area.
By now, the tales of rescues have become common, with a handful of forest rangers joined by police, EMS, firefighters and volunteers routinely being called to pluck out hikers who were unprepared for the trail conditions or the weather or darkness, or those who became lost or injured. The cost of these rescues not only in dollars, but in manpower, has become astronomical.
Recently, the union representing forest rangers renewed its annual plea for more rangers.
Officials cited among the rescue statistics is the growing amount of overtime pay, which regularly exceeds annual budgets because there aren’t enough regular full-time rangers to handle calls on weekends and nights when a lot of rescues happen.
But rescues aren’t the only job of a forest ranger. They also patrol trails, provide advice and guidance to visitors, issue tickets for those breaking environmental conservation laws, deal with parking issues due to overcrowding, and just provide a presence in the region. But the more people and land the forest rangers have to oversee, the less they can perform those basic tasks.
The state has to realize that if it’s going to promote the Adirondack and Catskill parks to visitors and then reap the financial and tax benefits of additional tourism dollars from purchases of lodging, food, equipment and gas, then they also have a responsibility to ensure that those areas have an adequate number of rangers available to effectively serve the growing population.
Boosting the park rangers’ ranks should be a top priority. Not only will it help increase public safety, it also could save the state money on the excessive overtime it now pays.
But there are also a number of other steps the state can take.
One bill pending in the Legislature this session (A1459/S3987) would at least make sure the ranger shortage didn’t get any worse.
It would require that the state add one additional ranger for every 30,000 acres of land that come under the jurisdiction of the state Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC).
According to the bill memo, the state has added 1.5 million additional acres of land in the past 45 years, bringing the current total to around 4.87 million acres, but hasn’t matched that with a comparable number of rangers to patrol it. This bill would at least stem the bleeding, so to speak, by ensuring that as the state adds land, it also adds staff to patrol it. Granted, one forest ranger for 30,000 acres isn’t much, but it’s a start. And when larger tracts are added, along with more rangers, it will boost the size of the entire force that can be drawn upon for emergencies.
That’s one way the state can help alleviate the situation.
Another is by training more volunteers to help with rescues.
Volunteers are an integral part of every rescue operation, where they are needed to help search for victims and assist the professional searchers.
With an estimated 225 search-and-rescue operations taking place in wild and remote areas each year, maintaining a large and reliable contingent of trained volunteers is essential to the safety of visitors.
This legislation (A9756/S0761) would provide support for DEC training and credentialing of volunteer search-and-rescue groups. These groups would then be encouraged to organize and participate in search-and-rescue operations, supplementing the current professional force.
Neither of these bills by themselves will fully meet the growing demands placed on DEC forest rangers. But they will provide modest relief for what’s becoming a dire shortage of manpower.
The state must also look at possibly increasing fees for outdoor licenses and other activities, consider offering more courses on hiking (perhaps with certification) that could help reduce the number of hikers who go into the wilderness unprepared, and consider charging people to some degree for the cost of their rescues. We’re not big fans of the last one because it could discourage victims from calling for help. But it, like all ideas, should be placed on the table and debated.
But first and foremost, lawmakers need to focus on adding to the ranks of the forest ranger corps.
The state invited this problem. Now it has to deal with the consequences.