State forest rangers in 2018 responded to 346 search, rescue and recovery missions, on par with the past three years and about 100 more than the workload seen a decade ago.
The search, rescue and recovery tally – provided by a forest ranger -- covers operations from Jan. 1 to Dec. 31. The number reveals 2018 was the fourth consecutive year in which rangers responded to more than 300 missions.
Pointing to a rise in Adirondack trail use in recent years, as well as the growing size of the state forest preserve that rangers are tasked with patrolling, rangers have said they are unable to focus on their key public education and stewardship missions because of the amount of time they must devote to lifesaving operations.
“The fairly consistent number of search and rescue incidents the last few years shows this is a consistent trend and not an anomalous spike in the data,” said Scott van Laer, a forest ranger in the High Peaks and union representative.
Each spring, the Department of Environmental Conservation publishes an annual Forest Rangers report that highlights search and rescue missions and the other work of the rangers.
Those reports show an upward trend in the number of search and rescue missions over the past decade: In 2007, rangers responded to 223 such missions; by 2016, they responded to a record 357 missions, including the harrowing winter rescue of a Niskayuna couple stranded near the summit of Algonquin Peak. Van Laer said that, in the 1970s, rangers dealt with fewer than 150 search and rescue missions a year.
In 2018, rangers responded to 171 search missions, 160 rescue missions and 15 body recoveries – a total of 346 incidents involving 473 people. As in other years, the Adirondack High Peaks area experienced the heaviest search load, with 88 missions occurring in the most popular and the most challenging part of the Adirondacks.
The rangers and their supporters have rallied the support of dozens local governments across the Adirondacks that have passed resolutions calling on the state to boost rangers' staffing by about 40 positions. They have pressed their case on social media and in the aftermath of high-profile rescue missions.
“We have a broad coalition of Adirondack towns and county governments, environmental advocacy groups as well as recreational user groups that are urging state government to take action in this fiscal year and add to the forest ranger staff,” van Laer said.
Rescue calls often come in the evening, when rangers are off duty. As a result, 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.
But it’s not clear whether state officials plan to hire more 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 said they have increased the number of rangers in recent years, as they filled positions that were left vacant during tough budget cycles. While forest rangers have thanked officials for filling those positions, they have also said those hires only brought their ranks back to where they were supposed to be before trail usage and search and rescue needs surged. DEC Commissioner Basil Seggos has said there will be a new rangers academy and a fresh batch of recruits sometime in 2019.
Advocates of the Adirondacks have also called for increasing ranger staffing levels and expressed concerns that the focus on search and rescue has drawn attention away from the conservation and education work of rangers.
“What’s clearly missing is a plan to fund and staff an integrated approach to manage overuse, specifically,” Adirondack Council Executive Director William Janeway said earlier in the fall. “That’s a missing piece.”
Just this week, the state environmental conservation officers, a separate DEC law enforcement body that shares a union with the forest rangers, started their own call for higher staffing levels. Citing federal cutbacks in environmental regulation, the union said boosting the ranks of DEC environmental conservation officers is key to combating pollution and climate change.
“This is a crucial point in time,” said Harold Barber, director of the state Police Benevolent Association, in the Monday press release. “The PBA of New York calls on the DEC and Governor Cuomo to focus on enforcement as a key aspect of his campaign to fight against climate change and federal inaction. The decimation of enforcement at the federal level means state leaders must step up now.”