By MICHAEL VIRTANEN
Even as thousands more hikers and campers poured into the Adirondack backcountry patrolled by forest rangers over the past decade, state data show ticket writing has dropped by the hundreds.
Visitors are still littering and using the public lands illegally. But the ranger numbers haven’t kept up with the wave, and some say the stretched corps has to spend more of its patrol time keeping recreationists safe and informed. The numbers of tickets dropped by almost a third over a 10-year period, before a slight rebound last year.
“The number of tickets the last few years, it’s way, way down,” ranger and union representative Scott van Laer said. “I’d attribute that to staffing issues—that we’re not getting into the woods as much, we’re not identifying the violations—and spending more time on search-and-rescue incidents and in the front country.”
Van Laer, ranger director for the Police Benevolent Association of New York State, works in the popular High Peaks. There are six permanent rangers for his zone. He told the Adirondack Explorer they could use help from six more.
The Department of Environmental Conservation reported 2,109 tickets or arrests by rangers responsible for 4.9 million acres statewide in 2017. More than half the land is in the Adirondack Park.
Ten years earlier, they recorded 3,092 tickets or arrests on 4.5 million acres the DEC then administered. Official staffing levels remained the same with 106 field rangers and 28 or 29 supervisory officers.
The department says its rangers wrote 2,354 tickets last year.
In January, van Laer urged legislators to add to the ranks, saying more time talking to hikers on backcountry trails would help keep more out of trouble.
Rangers conducted 346 search-and-rescue missions in 2017, resulting in 147 rescues and 22 recovered bodies, according to the DEC. A decade earlier they went on 245 missions, making 92 rescues and finding four dead.
DEC Commissioner Basil Seggos defended current staffing, telling legislators the department has the resources it needs to fulfill its obligations. He acknowledged DEC cuts years ago created change, 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 some personnel added last year to help work on clean water issues, and there’s a slight staffing increase planned this year as well, he said.
The commissioner said increased tourism to the Adirondacks is “a good problem,” and DEC is working to drive down pressure on the most popular trails with other corridors and projects like the new Frontier Town camping hub to draw visitors to less-used areas in the park.
There are 288 environmental conservation police officers and 134 rangers, Seggos said. He hopes there will be another training class soon to keep up with the rate of retirements, he said.
The number of seasonal assistant rangers, a separate category, dropped over the decade from 31 to 18 a decade later, but they aren’t law enforcement officers and can’t write tickets or make arrests.
The department attributed the decade’s decline in tickets to more cooperation with other DEC divisions emphasizing public education about public land use.
In 2018, the DEC employed 22 assistant rangers across the state during the prime hiking season from Memorial Day weekend through Columbus Day weekend, spokeswoman Erica Ringewald said. The department planned to employ similar numbers this year.
The final budget will be worked out between the Cuomo administration and Legislature for the fiscal year that begins April 1.
After Seggos defended flat staffing for the coming year, Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced New York was under further financial pressure with reduced tax revenues from federal tax law changes passed last year. His administration planned to revise its budget proposals.
Van Laer said that in the past he has written between 100 and 200 tickets in a year, but that the number has declined to dozens in the past few years. “I’m just not where I need to be to observe the violations,” he said.
Some of the rangers’ effort goes to educating people how and why they’re violating regulations, van Laer said. They also get policy guidance for “zero tolerance” on certain infractions like boating without flotation vests, he said.
New York rangers and conservation police officers wrote more than 450 tickets this summer in DEC’s Region 5—the core of the park—for violations ranging from dumping waste and littering to leaving fires unattended, illegally riding all-terrain vehicles and camping in groups with more than 10 people on state land.
Dozens of tickets were issued for speeding in campgrounds, using unregistered boat trailers and fishing without a license. Other people were tagged for boating or paddling without requisite flotation vests, disturbing wetlands or streambanks, polluting waterways, drinking while underage or possessing marijuana.
Conservation officers wrote more than 60 percent of the tickets. The DEC region’s 38 field rangers wrote the rest. Some resulted in small fines, while others brought criminal charges.
Several Adirondack visitors got ticketed for camping on AuSable Club land, where hikers can cross on a public right-of-way to reach state land in the High Peaks. Almost two-dozen parking tickets were written in August around Lake Placid, some along Route 73 and Adirondak Loj Road, where parking restrictions were announced.
The state released ticket copies to the Explorer following a Freedom of Information Law request. Only 24 showed court outcomes, which the DEC acknowledged it does not track centrally. Most of the 24 tickets resulted in fines, which can simply be mailed for low-level violations.
A handful of cases were dismissed, including two tickets in Hadley Town Court for a personal watercraft on the Hudson River, cited for being unregistered and without a safety certificate.
A couple from Keene Valley paid $25 each for paddling on Follensby Clear Pond in the Saranac Lakes Wild Forest without personal flotation devices. Ticketed July 25 by a ranger, they didn’t face any additional surcharge from Santa Clara Town Court.
A ranger ticket at Ausable Point Campground for driving 30 mph where the speed limit was half that resulted in a $50 fine and a $25 Peru Town Court surcharge.
A ticket for riding an ATV on a highway resulted in a fine of $75 and Arietta Town Court surcharge of $93.
Rangers also appear in court to prosecute contested charges.
In a case that made the DEC’s weekly public highlights report in August, two men received 17 tickets altogether, stopped while riding ATVs in Johnsburg.
Ranger Arthur Perryman received information that an illegal ATV trail was being built on private land leading to the state forest preserve. He found it and stopped the men the next day just below the Crane Mountain summit, where they had saws and earth-moving tools, according to the DEC.
“We’re just going to fight it to the bitter end,” said John French, 50, of Johnsburg, one of the defendants. He said they were just riding as they had before on land that the Open Space Institute bought but hadn’t yet posted.
Gary Lamy, 69, of Warrensburg, who was also ticketed, declined to comment.
Both also were cited for allegedly riding on private land without permission, riding on the forest preserve, not wearing helmets, injuring vegetation, putting down a salt lick to attract deer, and cutting trees, which was the most serious charge—a misdemeanor.
French said someone else put the salt there, and that Lamy simply keeps a saw with him. French said he believed they were being railroaded.
Perryman and the DEC didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment. The case was referred to the Warren County District Attorney’s Office.
The Explorer reviewed and has posted two months of tickets issued last summer.