Union reps: Hiring plans could be offset by looming retirements
By Gwendolyn Craig
The number of forest rangers could increase this year, New York’s Department of Environmental Conservation commissioner testified Tuesday although union representatives and lawmakers warn of retirements in the ranks. Environmental conservation officer numbers could fall this year as well.
Concerns about staffing these forces comes up regularly in state spending talks, and did so again during the environmental conservation budget hearing before the state Legislature. Representatives from the Police Benevolent Association of New York State were left off the virtual testimony list due to a scheduling issue, PBA officials told the Adirondack Explorer.
Still, lawmakers representing the Adirondack Park and Catskills grilled DEC Commissioner Basil Seggos about his personnel plans. He told lawmakers he had sufficient staff for all the department’s responsibilities. Gov. Kathy Hochul’s executive budget proposal adds more than 90 people to the department.
That might include more forest rangers because an academy of 40 — the largest class ever — is set to graduate this spring. Seggos said forest rangers’ responsibilities have ranged from helping with the coronavirus pandemic response, rescuing hikers to fighting wildfires out West. Seggos said he recognized “the work that they do and support them.”
Arthur Perryman, forest ranger director of Region 5 and PBA representative, said “it’s absolutely the highest numbers we’ve ever had and should be celebrated as a great achievement. The commissioner has done the right thing.”
Perryman cautioned, however, that the staffing levels are “always a moving target.”
Perryman said 22 forest rangers will be eligible for retirement by the time recruits finish school. And while Perryman hopes 40 will graduate, the likelihood of all of them doing so is slim. The highest number of forest rangers in the field in recent memory was about 105 in 2018, Perryman said. By the end of 2022, he expects there could be about 125 rangers. Perryman hopes the department can stay ahead of attrition.
The Adirondack Council, in its written budget testimony, was less impressed with the ranger reinforcements. The environmental organization called for a “meaningful increase” and suggested the new academy would be “offset by attrition from retirements.” The council said rangers “are still personally responsible for purchasing important equipment” and called for more investment.
High Peaks staffing
The more than 275,000 acres in the High Peaks region of the Adirondack Park, the scene of most foot traffic and hiker rescues, is covered by three rangers, Perryman said. Another is assigned to the Newcomb area and another covers North Hudson. Perryman said no other rangers have wanted to transfer in after the latest round of retirements.
State Sen. Dan Stec, R-Queensbury, asked Seggos if there were plans to add to the High Peaks’ ranger force.
“The answer is yes,” Seggos said, adding that he is working with the division’s leadership on assignments.
The academy is also graduating environmental conservation officers, though not enough to keep up with attrition.
PBA representative Matthew Krug said Seggos has approval for 20 academy graduates, although it is doubtful all will make the grade. Krug said the conservation officer force is expected to have at least 48 vacancies by the completion of the academy and their field training program.
“The academy is strenuous with many tests,” Krug said.
Stec and Sen. Michelle Hinchey, D-Saugerties, brought up the retirement bill Hochul vetoed. The measure, seen as a recruitment tool, would have allowed rangers and environmental conservation officers to retire in 20 years instead of 25, making access to pensions equivalent to other police officer positions. Stec also asked Seggos about issues promoting rangers, pointing out that some leadership positions pay less than field jobs.
Seggos referred those matters to the state Division of the Budget and to the collective bargaining process.