By MICHAEL VIRTANEN
New York’s conservation commissioner defended flat staffing for rangers and other personnel in the coming year, despite questions from legislators at a budget hearing this week.
Basil Seggos, who heads the Department of Environmental Conservation, said there are currently 288 conservation officers and 134 forest rangers, that he hopes there will be another training class soon and hopes to keep up with the rate of retirements.
They conducted 346 search and rescue missions last year, Seggos said.
Assemblyman Steven Englebright, who chairs that chamber’s Environmental Conservation Committee, asked whether the DEC have the staffing resources it needs to fulfill its obligations.
“We do,” Seggos said, adding he believes they have the levels needed to fix problems in the state and meet New Yorkers’ needs. He acknowledged staffing cuts a decade ago created change in the department, and they learned to operate more efficiently and request personnel when they need it.
“I’d say we’re doing more now with the resources we have than we’ve ever done as an agency,“ Seggos said. Staffing is up slightly, with 50 people added last year to help work on clean water issues, and there’s a slight staffing increase planned this year as well, he said.
Assemblyman Dan Stec, who represents part of the Adirondacks, said ranger staffing now is at the same level as 30 years ago, when his father was one of them, although the amount of state-owned land and visitors have grown substantially.
Seggos said increased tourism to the region is “a good problem,” and DEC is working to drive down pressure on rangers working on the most popular trails with corridors and projects like the new Frontier Town to draw visitors to less used areas in the Adirondacks.
Scott van Laer, a ranger in the High Peaks Wilderness and a union representative, urged legislators to add staffing. There are 106 field rangers statewide and some supervisors, and 50 permanent rangers who patrol 2.6 million acres in the Adirondacks. That compares to 330 federal rangers who patrol the Yellowstone National Park’s 2.2 million acres, he said.
Meeting and talking with hikers on trails helps keep them out of trouble, he said.
“A lot of these increases in search and rescues that we see, that’s happened because we’ve lost the initiative. We’re not proactive anymore,” van Laer said. “Adding a few more rangers could make the difference.”
Englebright questioned why the DEC now wants to divert some of the proposed $300 million budget for the Environmental Protection Fund, dedicated to capital projects like buying land, for staffing. “Some have thought of that as grand theft,” he said, a small precedent that would grow.
“We’re proposing a very modest, nominal ability for us to direct EPF dollars to personal services, specifically for programs within the EPF,” Seggos said. That’s like the DEC’s approach with clean water and Superfund projects, and he wouldn’t expect anything different with this model, he said.
Englebright also questioned why actual EPF spending levels are estimated at $220 million, “dramatically less” than the $300 million allocated each of the past several years. “This should be a continuous flow … even if there are offsets in time for for actual disbursement or whatever,” he said.
Seggos, who has announced he’ll be leaving the DEC soon, said he agrees they should be pushing more money out the door and are trying to. They are working with municipalities getting grants to try to move them faster but some projects are large and take time, he said.
On New York’s efforts to help stem global warming, Englebright questioned what the Cuomo administration means with its goal of “carbon neutrality.” It was proposed in addition to a goal of 100 percent “clean” electricity for New York by 2040.
The Long Island Democrat said he’s seen some progress in the energy sector, but questioned where it is in the residential and transportation sectors.
New York currently generates about 25 percent of its electricity from renewable sources, mostly hydropower plus a small amount of wind-generated and solar power. The 2040 goal contemplates continuing nuclear power plants and supporting large increases in wind and solar generation.
“Carbon neutrality means favoring energy sources that have a zero-carbon footprint, recognizing that sequestration and other types of methods can be used to offset certain emissions,” Seggos said. “We have approached climate change for the last eight years as an existential issue, hitting it from every angle.”
New York hit last year’s target of establishing 3,000 charging stations for electric vehicles and has a 2021 target of 10,000. The DEC has been spending EPF money for municipalities to buy “clean” vehicle fleets and helping drive down the costs of solar installations, shown by many panels getting installed on residential roofs, he said.