By Gwendolyn Craig
ALBANY — With sweeping statewide climate change promises and an increasingly strained group of forest rangers in the Adirondacks and Catskills, a number of lawmakers at a public hearing on Monday asked the leader of the state Department of Environmental Conservation if he had enough staff to carry it all out in the 2021 budget.
“Absolutely,” said Commissioner Basil Seggos.
Lawmakers seemed skeptical and continued to press the commissioner during his approximately three hours of testimony during the first of 13 state budget hearings in Albany.
In Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s proposed budget, the DEC is slated to get 47 full-time employees added to mostly to handle the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act and shoreline flooding in New York. The climate legislation aims for the state to reduce its fossil fuel use by 85% below 1990 levels by 2050.
Assemblyman Steve Englebright, D-Setauket, pointed out that DEC has lost almost one-third of its personnel in the past decade, while the agency’s obligations have increased.
“We’re now looking at taking on the world, literally, in the sense of the climate-change challenge,” Englebright said. “I would just urge you to take another look at that aspect of the budget, the personnel aspect. I believe we would be receptive to a conversation to add personnel, but I don’t believe we can do that if you tell us you don’t need anybody and everything is just swell.”
State Sen. Betty Little, R-Queensbury, also addressed Seggos and said she “would hope some of them (the new positions) would go to the forest rangers.”
In a list of those new positions provided to Adirondack Explorer by the DEC, none were forest rangers.
In a meeting with reporters following the budget hearing, Seggos said he expects to add an academy in the coming year, but would not say more forest rangers were needed.
“I’ll tell you how concerned I am,” he said about the staffing of forest rangers. “When I took office we had 120 forest rangers. Now we have 141.”
Addressing overuse in the High Peaks and elsewhere in the Adirondacks is a priority, Seggos said, because it could help forest rangers focus on doing the jobs they were intended to do. For example, addressing parking problems would alleviate the need for rangers to write parking tickets.
“Then the rangers can go into the backcountry and educate more, and do … rescues during their patrols,” Seggos said. “We’ve done more in the last year, also, in working with other state agencies — the Department of Transportation, State Police, even having our ECOs (environmental conservation officers) come up and help out. So, we’re maximizing our existing resources, so simply adding numbers isn’t always a solution.”
Local municipalities, Seggos added, want to continue to see increased tourism numbers, but “without the problems that come with bad planning.”
The commissioner pointed to the new High Peaks Advisory Group, a hodgepodge of Adirondack-related stakeholders and state employees who are meeting privately to address overuse. The group has had a few meetings so far, and vague minutes with no names of who said what have been posted on the DEC’s website.
“Some meetings will be open to the public, but arguably these were meetings we have assembled to get candid advice and our commitment is to ensure that we get as much of that there for the public as quickly as possible,” Seggos said.
Several environmental groups and the union representing forest rangers feel more staff is needed in the Adirondacks.
Written budget testimony by Scott van Laer, a union representative for the rangers, said there were 10 more rangers in the 1970s patrolling Region 5, which includes most of the Adirondacks. Search-and-rescue missions are up, and the popularity of the High Peaks is increasing.
In written testimony, Protect the Adirondacks Executive Director Peter Bauer said the state should increase ranger staff to 175 people, “with a special focus on the High Peaks in the Adirondacks.” Bauer also called for a greater investment in staff to build and repair trails.
The Adirondack Council also called for more rangers, in its written testimony. The Council also wants to see more foresters, planners and biologists working on the overuse of the Adirondacks.