By Gwendolyn Craig
Some local lawmakers and nonprofit organizations have seized on the last year’s pandemic pulse of Adirondack visitors as reason to call for more state investment — and more forest rangers — in New York’s 2022 budget.
“The boom in public use has revealed longstanding weaknesses in the management of the Forest Preserve,” Peter Bauer, executive director of Protect the Adirondacks, wrote in budget testimony submitted to state legislators.
But the state’s $15 billion budget deficit could interfere with groups’ wish lists.
The Adirondack Park was a source of much discussion during the start of the state Senate and Assembly’s conservation budget hearing on Wednesday. Basil Seggos, commissioner of the state Department of Environmental Conservation, led by saying how more than one-third of his staff assisted with the coronavirus pandemic. That included forest rangers and environmental conservation officers.
Seggos acknowledged the pressure facing rangers in the backcountry, particularly in the Adirondacks and the Catskills. Despite questions from lawmakers about whether he needed more staff, Seggos said DEC was equipped to handle the pandemic and regular responsibilities.
In written testimony from the Police Benevolent Association of New York State, Region 6 Forest Ranger Peter Morehouse wrote about the challenges facing his colleagues in juggling the pandemic and standard responsibilities. A drought has increased the number of wildland fires; an increase in people going outdoors has increased search-and-rescue missions; and some rangers have tested positive for the virus. Morehouse said all of this has occurred with staff operating on 2014 salary levels.
Morehouse asked that the union’s compensation levels be brought up to 2018 levels to “help boost morale.”
State Sen. Dan Stec, R-Queensbury, didn’t directly ask Seggos if he would fund more rangers, as several Adirondack groups did in written testimony, but he said the state owns more public land and has more people recreating than ever before.
Rangers patrol and protect millions of acres of state land, including some 2.6 million acres in the Adirondacks. Last year there were 141 rangers statewide, including 45 in the DEC region that attracts the bulk of the park’s visitation.
If the economy improves and the state’s hiring freeze lifts, Seggos said, the state will look to hold a forest ranger academy “in the foreseeable future.” For now, however, he tipped his hat to rangers, environmental conservation officers, state police and other agencies and nonprofits helping his staff.
Lawmakers pressed Seggos on how the state will address the increasing popularity of the Adirondack High Peaks region. Seggos often referred to the formation of the High Peaks Strategic Planning Advisory Group, a committee of volunteers and paid state staff who meet privately several times a month to discuss potential solutions to crowd management. That group and the DEC had promised a final report at the end of 2020, but the latest meeting notes indicate the group either submitted or will submit its report to DEC this month.
While the public has yet to see the group’s final recommendations, Protect the Adirondacks, Adirondack Mountain Club and Adirondack Council submitted written testimony asking the state to devote $10 million toward the Adirondack and Catskill forest preserves. Some of that funding, the groups wrote, would be used to bolster infrastructure and manage visitors.
Seggos said a permit system for hiking in the High Peaks is a last resort.
Many Adirondack-focused and environmental organizations provided written testimony for the budget hearings. The Senate posted a list of those documents and their attachments on its website with the committee agenda.
Here are some more highlights:
- Many groups have called for the renewal of last year’s proposed and shelved $3 billion environmental bond act.
- The Adirondack Council focused the start of its budget testimony on making the Adirondacks a more welcome and inclusive place. It is asking for the state to provide $500,000 to the Adirondack Diversity Initiative, an increase from Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s proposed $250,000.
- The Adirondack Council and Protect the Adirondacks asked for more staff for the Adirondack Park Agency.
- Protect the Adirondacks noted Cuomo’s proposal to “realign” the Lake George Park Commission with the DEC. Bauer urged the Legislature to reject the budgetary change.
- Protect the Adirondacks called for more oversight of the Regional Economic Development Council, which allocates funding to various projects through a kind of competition. The organization also called for more oversight of the APA and its implementation or lack thereof of the state’s climate initiatives.