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Editorial: Adirondack helpers fill staffing void

Editorial: Adirondack helpers fill staffing void

Volunteer program will be helpful, but no substitute for more rangers and hikers being more responsible for themselves
Editorial: Adirondack helpers fill staffing void
A state police helicopter prepares to hoist up a lost hiker on Algonquin Peak in this file photo.
Photographer: DEPARTMENT OF ENVIRONMENTAL CONSERVATION

This week’s snowstorm is going to inspire some people to check out the breathtaking winter scenery in the Adirondacks.

They’ll likely venture out of their homes down here in the flatlands when it’s sunny and relatively warm. They’re going to wear their regular walking boots and a regular coat, a hat and gloves, and maybe bring snacks and some water.

Then when they get into the real mountains, where the weather can switch from comfortable to treacherous in seconds, they’ll get lost in blinding snow or fog, or they’ll simply forget what time the sun sets and they’ll be wandering around the unfamiliar woods in the dark. Or they’ll hike into an area not suited to their minimal hiking skills and footwear, and they’ll fall and injure themselves so they can’t walk out. Their cell phones will either die or just won’t work, so they won’t be able to call for help.

At some point, someone will realize they’re missing, and a full troop of rescuers on foot, ATVs, snowmobiles and helicopters will put their own lives at risk to reach these people before they die of exposure in the Adirondack winter night.

It’s a scenario that plays out way too often — inexperienced, unprepared, improperly dressed and outfitted hikers get back to nature. Then nature gets back at them.

As the number of hikers in the Adirondacks has exploded in recent years, up 25 percent in the last decade, the number of forest rangers hasn’t kept up.

Yet despite the revenue the state has been taking in as a result of its successful tourism promotion efforts, the governor and Legislature have failed each year to adjust the number of rangers to meet a growing demand for their services.

And all the while the politicians dawdle, hikers keep getting lost in the Adirondacks and the rescuers have to keep going out to rescue them.

But not everyone is sitting around waiting for the next tragedy.

A new partnership of state environmental officials and local Adirondack groups is heading out to various trailheads in the High Peaks Wilderness starting this weekend to act as stewards.

Volunteers from the Adirondack Mountain Club, Adirondack 46ers, Keene Backcountry Rescue and others will be working with the state Department of Environmental Conservation to interact one-on-one with hikers to make sure they’re dressed properly and apprise them of the conditions they’ll encounter and the risks they might be taking. 

They’ll also remind them of their responsibility leave the wilderness the way they found for future visitors.

This effort is a very positive response to a growing problem, and the DEC and the volunteers should be commended for giving their time to this creative, potentially life-saving effort.

But it doesn’t absolve state lawmakers of their responsibility to ensure that there is enough staff in the Adirondacks.

And it doesn’t absolve hikers of their responsibility to educate and equip themselves properly before they venture out.

A more permanent solution is needed.

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