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Foss: Hiking mishap highlights need for more rangers

Foss: Hiking mishap highlights need for more rangers

Foss: Hiking mishap highlights need for more rangers
Forest Ranger Scott van Laer has been outspoken in his calls for the state to hire more rangers.
Photographer: GAZETTE FILE

It's easy to make jokes about the clueless hikers who called for a taxi from atop Whiteface Mountain. 

Like most hikers, I've had my share of mishaps while hiking. 

But it takes a special kind of discombobulation to try to hail a cab from the summit of an Adirondack High Peak. 

That said, the effort did pay off.

A forest ranger drove up the closed highway, picked up the hikers and transported them to their car six miles away. His actions are part of what makes this a humorous, rather than tragic, tale. If not for his intervention, who knows what might have happened to the hikers as nightfall neared and they remained stuck on an icy, snowy mountaintop. 

The incident reminded me of one of the big surprises of this year's legislative session: The state budget did not include funding for more state forest rangers. 

The arguments in favor of increasing ranger staffing are so strong I was convinced legislators would act. 

There's the fact that forest ranger staffing has remained essentially unchanged from a decade ago, despite a surge in search and rescues. 

Last year rangers conducted 356 search and rescue missions, up from about 100 just 10 years ago. 

The jump in missions is the result of increased tourist activity, which is, in part, the result of a concerted push by New York state to get more people to visit the Adirondacks.   

In addition, the state has added approximately 200,000 acres to its forestland since 2007, meaning New York's forest rangers have more territory to cover. 

What's perhaps most remarkable about the fact that forest ranger staffing levels haven't budged in years is that we live in a state that throws money around as though there's an infinite supply of taxpayer dollars that rains down from heaven every March.

The state has seen fit to pump money into fancy attractions such as the new $16.2 million Adirondacks Welcome Center between exists 17 and 18 on the Northway ... but stubbornly refuses to acknowledge the need for more personnel to deal with the growing pains caused by a boom in tourism. 

As rangers devote more and more of their energy to life-saving missions, they wind up neglecting other duties.

According to a recent Adirondack Explorer report, rangers are writing fewer tickets for violations such as littering and using public land illegally. 

In 2017 the state Department of Environmental Conservation reported 2,109 arrests or tickets by rangers responsible for 4.9 million acres statewide, much of it in the Adirondacks. Ten years earlier, the agency reported 3,092 tickets or arrests on 4.5 million acres. 

What this means is that hikers who despoil the wilderness with litter and other harmful activity are less likely to be held accountable for it. 

The Whiteface rescue is getting attention because it's an outlandish story.

(Another key detail: The hikers mistakenly believed a hike to the summit of Whiteface would take 45 minutes, rather than several hours.) 

But it was one of five rescues that took place over a three-day span, May 17, 18 and 19. 

In Harrietstown in Franklin County, a forest ranger assisted two adults who flipped their kayaks on Middle Saranac Lake, came ashore and were unable to navigate the trail to the parking lot in the dark. 

In Essex County, rangers were dispatched to locate a man who became separated from his hiking party while descending Mt. Jo. In the town of Hunter, in Greene County, a forest ranger was sent to assist a 58-year-old woman who fell ill while hiking with a Girl Scout troop. 

Rangers also searched for a woman who became lost while hiking Vanderwhacker Mountain; she was located the next afternoon, after spending the night in the woods. 

There are always going to be hiking mishaps, but we're having more of them than we used to, which is cause for alarm. 

Basil Seggos, DEC commissioner, has described the increased tourism in the Adirondacks as a "good problem to have." 

Well, the jump in mishaps and rescues caused by the increase in tourism is a bad problem to have, and the state's refusal to increase the number of rangers in response to it is downright irresponsible. 

Maybe next year the Legislature will have the good sense to make this much-needed investment. 

In the meantime, I can't help but regard their failure to fund more rangers in this year's budget as a major missed opportunity. 

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

 

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