State officials pledge more resources for rangers
By Gwendolyn Craig
In February 2018, more than 30 forest rangers from around the state descended on Saddleback Mountain in the High Peaks Wilderness to rescue an injured hiker. The rescue took nearly two days in the snow and ice.
Forest Ranger Robbie Mecus told the Adirondack Explorer then that “it’s probably the worst spot in the High Peaks that you can break a leg,” adding that “there’s no way to get to it without going over a High Peak.” Adirondack High Peaks rise roughly 4,000 feet or taller.
“There were rangers that had to stop, set up shelter and rewarm themselves on the side of the trail to keep going,” said ranger Andrew Lewis. “The conditions were just that bad.” Among the rangers covering the High Peaks region — just over a dozen — Lewis said many of those who responded to that 2018 winter rescue did not have suitable mountaineering boots, clothing layers or packs.
To assist colleagues in defraying costs for gear, Lewis and others recently launched a new initiative: The Forest Ranger Foundation. Based in Keene, the nonprofit organization’s mission is to provide “additional equipment, training and support for New York State Forest Rangers to improve their unique abilities to protect lives and resources.”
The state Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) provides gear to forest rangers. But items such as winter base layers, snow pants, socks, tents, emergency shelters, sleeping bags and additional backpacks are on a ranger’s own dime.
Rangers get an annual boot stipend of $175, but Lewis said boots often wear out before the year is over.
“We personally purchase a lot of equipment to make ourselves more functional, to make ourselves safer, and to provide a better service to the public,” Lewis said.
Thirty-eight rangers most recently graduated from the ranger academy, and Lewis is glad they are on board. But new rangers, which start out at the lowest base pay, tend to need the most gear. Out-of-pocket costs can be as much as $5,000 per person for new recruits, Lewis said.
More experienced rangers tend to pay closer to $1,000 or $2,000 a year, he said. Some rangers refuse to purchase anything for their jobs, he said, and that can make search and rescues particularly difficult.
The foundation plans to roll out fundraisers for specific items, which will likely be distributed to all rangers across the state. Though rangers experience different job environments depending on where they are stationed, Lewis said wildfires and big search and rescues, such as the Saddleback Mountain rescue, can call in rangers from everywhere. They all need to be prepared for anything, Lewis said.
In addition to equipping rangers, the foundation hopes to partner with outside organizations on better training programs for challenging rescues and wildfire responses.
The nonprofit hopes to work with the state so that rangers are paid their salaries while the foundation pays for their transportation and attendance at training seminars. The foundation also plans to assist rangers with their physical and mental health, though Lewis said the board is still working on how to address that.
Lewis is the president of the new organization. Its treasurer is John Gullen, a ranger in the Catskill Park. Mark Brand is the foundation’s secretary, based in the southern Adirondacks. Lewis said board members must be field rangers. Scott van Laer, a retired forest ranger and outspoken advocate for rangers, provided the bulk of the funding to get the nonprofit off the ground, Lewis said.
DEC Commissioner Basil Seggos said he was puzzled about the creation of the foundation and pointed to the ranger force and resources being larger than ever.
Talking to the press in Saranac Lake on Friday, Seggos said staff should be able to get whatever they need and should not have to turn to a foundation. “We need to connect the dots” to the rangers who might not know they can ask for equipment, Seggos said.
But rangers have been vocal about a lack of resources recently.
In an environmental conservation budget hearing at the beginning of the year, rangers testified before state lawmakers about the matter. Arthur Perryman, an Adirondack forest ranger and director of forest rangers for the New York State Police Benevolent Association, told lawmakers they often buy their own down jackets and winter gear.
“We have to get you down jackets,” responded state Assemblyman John Lemondes Jr., R-Lafayette. “That makes no sense at all.”
Perryman told the Explorer he thought the foundation was a positive thing for the rangers, and would also be beneficial for conducting more public outreach.
State Sen. Dan Stec, R-Queensbury, was surprised to hear about the foundation’s creation and thought the state should be paying for any gear rangers need. With a $227 billion state budget, Stec said, “there’s no reason for us to, as a state, to nickel and dime” the approximately 140 rangers statewide.
“As a budgetary matter, there’s not so many of them where we shouldn’t figure it out,” Stec said.
Assembly Environmental Conservation Committee Chair Deborah Glick, D-Manhattan, noted that state police have foundations to assist with purchasing bullet proof vests and other equipment and teachers often pay for classroom items out of their own pockets.
“There are many areas in which we are shortchanging professionals that have vital jobs, but we will continue to work on this,” Glick said. “I didn’t realize that Andrew (Lewis) had gone to the point of starting a foundation, but I understand why, and we need to do a better job as a state to ensure that they have the resources and equipment that they need to do the job that we ask them to do.”
Glick said lawmakers and the DEC should raise the issue with Gov. Kathy Hochul soon to target resources in the proposed executive budget next year.
Lewis said the creation of the foundation was never meant to be critical of the state. The purchasing process between the state and outdoor gear companies, he said, “is extremely difficult, extremely tedious.”
“It just became clear that we have to augment what the state equips us with,” Lewis said. “We have to be capable at the highest level, otherwise we are putting ourselves in danger, and we’re potentially not saving a person. The argument is we need to push for the absolute best from ourselves.”
Adirondack policy, in plain speak.
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