Discussions about forest ranger staffing levels and overuse of the Adirondacks are heating up, as stakeholders call on state officials to bolster the ranks of those who protect the natural resource.
Forest rangers have steadily pushed for reinforcements, pointing to a rise in search and rescue operations. Their push has garnered widespread support from local governments.
Lots of people call it “a good problem to have,” but the increased popularity of the trails and attractions in the Adirondack High Peaks has also strained natural resources and complicated management efforts.
Adirondack Council Executive Director William Janeway said recently the Adirondacks' largest advocacy group is “pivoting” away from its focus on how to classify new state land and is instead looking at how the state will handle efforts to manage increasingly popular park trails and campsites -- and the overflowing parking lots that result.
“What’s clearly missing is a plan to fund and staff an integrated approach to manage overuse, specifically,” Janeway said last week. “That’s a missing piece.”
1. Does the state boost the ranks of the forest rangers?
As state and local officials gathered Thursday to cut a ribbon and tout the partial opening of the new Frontier Town state campground in North Hudson, Randy Preston, chair of the Essex County Board of Supervisors, raised an issue many in the Adirondacks are focused on.
“By the way, should I remind you the High Peaks area needs more [forest] rangers?” Preston said.
Essex County, along with around 40 other local governments, has passed a resolution calling for an increase in forest ranger staffing, as the rangers strive to increase their staffing levels to 175 field rangers and leadership officers – up about about 40 positions from current levels.
Bolstered by the support of local governments, the union that represents state forest rangers has pressed for hiring.
“The bottom line is we just need more people to handle it. There is no way around that simple fact,” said Art Perryman, a forest ranger in the Gore Mountain area and a union representative.
The rangers point out they are responsible for patrolling trails, educating hikers about best practices and responding to forest fires. But they must also assist hikers and hunters who get lost or injured in the woods, with some rescue operations lasting for days. Also, the overall amount of state land rangers must patrol has only grown in recent years.
“All these different facets of our job and discipline, they all take a certain amount of time,” Perryman said. “Right now, with an influx of search and rescue missions, that’s a huge chunk of our time.”
In 2007, the forest rangers worked 220 search and rescue operations – accounting for 10 percent their work hours – according to an annual forest rangers report. In 2017, rangers worked 323 search and rescue missions – accounting for 14 percent of their time. They are on track this year to match last year’s numbers: As of Wednesday, they had responded to 281 search and rescues so far this year, compared with 280 last year, Perryman said. The numbers, according to Perryman, are down slightly in the Adirondacks: 174 so far this year, compared with 188 at this time last year. The High Peaks zone has had 72 operations so far this year.
The rangers’ official staffing levels were essentially the same in 2007 as they were in 2017, but the rangers now cover around 200,000 more acres of state forestland, between the Adirondacks, Catskills and other state parks.
State officials say they have increased the number of rangers in recent years, as they filled positions that had been left vacant during tough budget cycles. And while Perryman thanked officials for filling those positions, he said that hiring simply got the ranks back to where they were supposed to be before trail usage and search and rescue needs proliferated.
“Now we need to start planning for what the current use is and what the future use will be,” Perryman said. “Looking down the road, I don’t think (usage) is going to lessen for sure. We have to adapt once again and add those numbers where we see high use and searches and rescues.”
Department of Environmental Conservation Commissioner Basil Seggos on Thursday was non-committal when asked whether he would push for more rangers. But he said there would be a fresh batch next year, after a new training academy, which is planned for sometime in 2019.
“My focus has always been to increase their numbers -- make sure their ranks are healthy (and) that they have all the equipment they need (and that) they have the resources they need,” he told reporters after opening the new Frontier Town campground.“It’s early, early in the process. We are in budget season now and will be making those announcements soon.”
Seggos also said DEC is looking to marshal all of its resources and staff in a broad effort to address rising use of the park, enforcement and search challenges.
“We are not asking any one division to solve all the problems of the Adirondacks,” Seggos said. “What I want the entire agency to do is to work cohesively to solve those problems.”
2. Where to park?
The traditional Cascade trailhead, directly off Route 73, a persistent clot in the key artery delivering traffic to the Lake Placid area, was closed again over Columbus Day weekend. Instead, an alternative start launched from the Mount Van Hoevenberg parking area, where shuttle service was provided to the trailhead.
Bob Stegemann, DEC Region 5 Director, said the Cascade trail, one of the most used in the Adirondacks, will be rebuilt next year and rerouted permanently to start from the Mount Van Hoevenberg parking area – a somewhat longer trek.
“We have mutual objectives, three of them: one is protecting the natural resource; second is public safety on the roadways… and third is to maintain a wilderness experience,” he said of the trail changes.
The state also painted clear parking lines on parts of the roadway and added new “No Parking” signs, in addition to ramping up parking enforcement this summer.
It’s not clear, though, what other parking changes will be considered. The Adirondack Council this summer proposed an online parking reservation be used at some of the High Peaks’ busiest trailhead lots. Keene Town Supervisor Joe Wilson has said he envisions large, centralized lots that could serve as informational hubs.
But the parking issues only point to the larger challenges of managing the Adirondacks – and particularly the popular High Peaks – as the popular destination it has become. The Council last month highlighted more than 100 miles of hiking trails they said were in serious need of maintenance or rerouting.
“The state has done a comprehensive plan for more recreational use and increased use,” Janeway said. “But it hasn’t put out the comprehensive plan and how it will be funded to manage this great success.”
When asked about a broader management plan, Seggos said a comprehensive approach is “part and parcel” to how DEC operates.
“This isn’t a flip the switch and we’re gonna fix the problem,” Seggos said of trying to disperse Adirondack visitors to other parts of the massive park. “This is going to be: We keep on it. We keep making investments, keep making the places look attractive where people want to go, but ultimately steer people to other [Adirondack] communities.”
3. Do people go to Frontier Town?
State officials on Thursday unveiled one of those investments: the new Frontier Campground off Northway Exit 29, one exit south of the exit leading into the High Peaks and Lake Placid.
The new facility, featuring different campsite styles, a large playground, horse stables, river access and close proximity to many nearby trails, promises to make the new campground a popular draw for families. Officials highlighted the site's proximity to the new Boreas tract and promised trails and paths to connect to other state lands.
With Paradox Brewery expecting to open its tasting room and production facility there in the spring, officials hope other private development will follow for the site. Much of the area surrounding the new campground still shows two decades of neglect since the Frontier Town theme park closed.
“I have no doubt Frontier Town will be a destination not just for New Yorkers, but for many people,” Seggos said. “It’s been designed to give people the best possible experience and then to launch from here to all of the wonderful resources in the area, like the Boreas Pond tract.”
For Seggos, the challenges are part of the success.
“Overuse is almost a good problem to have,” he said. "Under use is when you start to be concerned.”