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Foss: The Adirondacks need more forest rangers

Foss: The Adirondacks need more forest rangers

They're overworked, stressed and unable to focus on public education and stewardship programs
Foss: The Adirondacks need more forest rangers
Forest Ranger Scott van Laer explains where rangers searched during a high-profile rescue mission in 2016.
Photographer: Gazette file photo

Last summer I had dinner with friends who had recently hiked in the Adirondacks for the first time. 

They had climbed Giant Mountain, one of my favorite High Peaks, and I mentioned that I loved the stunning views that come from scrambling over bare, open rock. 

"It was nice," one of my friends said. "But it was hard! We weren't prepared for how hard it was." 

"We'd heard Giant was easy." my other friend remarked. "It wasn't!" 

There's no such thing as easy hiking, much less an easy High Peak. 

But Giant does have a reputation for being one of the easier High Peaks, and it tends to attract less experienced hikers for that very reason. My friends made it to the summit and back without too much trouble, other than sore feet and aching joints, but it could have turned out very differently. 

Had they taken to the trail in bad weather, or in another, less hospitable season, they might have found themselves in dire straits, forced to call for help. 

Which would have been unfortunate, but not especially unusual: State forest rangers responded to 346 rescue and recovery missions in 2018, a rate of nearly one per day. 

This is a big increase from just a decade ago, when forest rangers responded to 100 fewer such incidents, and it's fueled, to a large extent, by the surging popularity of the Adirondacks and the numbers of inexperienced hikers flocking there and embarking on hikes for which they're unprepared.

Despite this increase in activity -- and the addition of 200,000 acres to state forestland since 2007 -- forest ranger staffing levels remain essentially unchanged from a decade ago. 

This status quo is perplexing, given the effort the state has made to promote the Adirondacks as a tourist destination and pump money into fancy attractions such as the new $16.2 million Adirondacks Welcome Center between exits 17 and 18 on the Northway. 

If the state can come up with the millions required to build a lavish rest area that includes a children's play area with zip line and selfie wall, it ought to be able to direct a little more money toward the Adirondacks' most urgent need: boots on the ground. 

State forest rangers are overworked, stressed and, according to the rangers themselves, unable to focus on public education and stewardship programs because of the huge amount of time they devote to lifesaving missions.

If the state really wants to ensure that Adirondack visitors have a good experience, it needs to invest in more forest rangers in the state budget for 2019-2020.

Right now there are about 138 rangers statewide; 15 of them in the High Peaks. 

Advocates have called on the state to boost ranger staffing by 40 positions, which sounds like a lot but is actually a fairly reasonable number given the various responsibilities rangers have and the vast swath of territory they're expected to patrol. 

Increasing the number of rangers would help with trail maintenance, which has been neglected, and hiker education, which is sorely needed. 

Other measures that might help include asking local law enforcement to assist with parking problems, freeing the rangers to focus on other matters, and deploying rangers from other, under-used state parks and preserves to the Adirondacks during the off-season. 

In addition, the state might consider developing a plan for hiker education that attempts to reach those who have no idea what they're getting into, and little sense of how their behavior can cause damage such as trail erosion. 

One recent article, on the news and entertainment website The Ringer, discussed how conservationists are using social media such as the popular photo-sharing website Instagram to post pretty pictures along with taglines encouraging people to protect these scenic spots. 

It's great that tourism in the Adirondacks is booming, but all booms come with downsides. 

If we want to preserve and protect the Adirondacks so that future generations can enjoy them, we need more rangers. 

We can build all the $16 million welcome centers we want. But unless we have the staffing needed to deal with the influx of tourists and wear and tear on the trails, New York's best natural attraction risks being loved to death.  

Reach Sara Foss at [email protected]. Opinions expressed here are her own and not necessarily the newspaper's. 

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