Supporters believe change will give extra incentive to job seekers
By Roger Hannigan Gilson, Times Union
PALENVILLE – State Sen. Michelle Hinchey is calling on Gov. Kathy Hochul to sign a bill lowering the number of years a forest ranger must serve before being eligible to get their pension in an attempt to attract job-seekers to the understaffed agency, which is under the umbrella of the state Department of Environmental Conservation.
There are currently 93 non-supervisory rangers to cover about 5.2 million acres of forested DEC-managed land, with 14 positions vacant. This comes at a time when visits to state parkland have increased dramatically with the pandemic.
Hinchey said she believed the numbers of visitors to the Catskills would continue to stay elevated from pre-pandemic levels. Though she embraced the higher numbers as an economic driver for her district, as well as a chance for all New Yorkers to see the splendor of the Catskills, she worried about the safety of visitors with so few rangers, as well as the potential for “degradation of land and water quality” without rangers being present to guide the often-new visitors.
“We have under-invested in [the Catskills’] protection, in terms of people, for a really long time,” Hinchey said.
Rangers, who are uniformed police officers, may currently receive their pensions after 25 years of employment. State troopers and nearly all sheriff’s deputies and municipal police are able to receive their pensions after 20 years.
State Sen. Andrew Gounardes is sponsoring the bill that would allow rangers – as well as DEC officers, regional state park police and SUNY police – to be eligible for their pensions after 20 years of service. The bill passed both the Assembly and the Senate unanimously and now is waiting on Hochul’s signature.
Hinchey, a co-sponsor of the bill, said it would introduce “parity” between police agencies in the state.
Lt. David Pachan of the forest rangers, also the associate director of the Police Benevolent Association of New York State (PBA), said the rangers were at “critically low” staffing levels.
The number of visitors had fallen since 2020 but is still high compared to 2019, he said.
“We cannot sustain that type of activity with the current staffing levels,” Pachan said.
DEC Commissioner Basil Seggos approved a larger class of ranger cadets this year, with room for 40 people, but Pachan said it was difficult to attract cadets when job-seekers could make more at other police agencies and retire 5 years earlier.
Currently, there are 124 forest rangers, including supervisors, according to Pachan, or about 1 for every 56,000 acres of parkland. Pachan wants to increase the number of rangers to 170 so that each field ranger patrols 30,000 acres of parkland.
Though the current state budget included $100,000 for stewards from the Catskill Center and Catskill Mountainkeeper, these people do not have the authority to write tickets and cannot undertake the forest ranger’s most important function: rescuing people.
This first appeared on timesunion.com.