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Groups call for more ‘boots on the ground’

Lack of state funding named as No. 4 environmental threat to Adirondack Park

December 14, 2018
By JUSTIN A. LEVINE - Outdoors Writer (jlevine@adirondackdailyenterprise.com) , Lake Placid News

LAKE PLACID - The state Department of Environmental Conservation oversees all of the public lands within the Adirondacks, and the amount of land the DEC manages has grown by over a million acres in the last decade or so. Yet the number of DEC employees who help with this mission has not grown by a corresponding amount, according to environmental groups.

The Lake Placid News recently polled environmental groups and colleges in the region and state agencies about the top five environmental threats to the Adirondack Park. No. 4 was lack of funding for agencies in charge of protecting the Park's Forest Preserve, including the DEC.

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Article Photos

A New York State Police helicopter, piloted by Tech. Lt. Peter Mclain, prepares to hoist up one of two lost hikers on Algonquin Peak in December 2016.
(Photo provided by the state Department of Environmental Conservation)

'Mismanagement'

Peter Bauer, executive director of Protect the Adirondacks, an environmental group based in Lake George, said the top-down management of the DEC and state Adirondack Park Agency by Gov. Andrew Cuomo's administration is a major cause for concern.

Bauer asserts that a lack of political will by the administration has led to mismanagement of the Forest Preserve from both an ecological and legal standpoint. He added that this alleged mismanagement extends all the way down to how many people DEC has in the field maintaining the Forest Preserve.

"The High Peaks calls out for a complete rebuild of infrastructure," Bauer said. "There's hundreds of miles of trails that haven't seen upgrades in decades. There's trails that have been in use since the Civil War. They were not well-designed trails when they were laid out, and they continue to cause natural resource problems.

"If we're spending millions of dollars on a new campground in Frontier Town, why can't we spend millions of dollars upgrading the High Peaks? It's absolutely a lack of will."

Bauer said the amount of economic benefit derived from the High Peaks and the rest of the Forest Preserve should lead to a re-investment in the resource.

"We should make major investments in the High Peaks to protect natural resources but to also ensure that people that are coming to the High Peaks are having the best experience possible," he said. "I think one of the things we need to see is many more people working on trail crews.

"We need to find ways to have more DEC boots on the ground, more DEC personnel who are actually not sitting at a desk, not drawing lines on computers, not finding ways to subvert New York state's long-standing environmental laws.

"They need to be out in the Forest Preserve building water bars, rebuilding trails, rerouting trails, rebuilding footbridges, improving drainage. Trying to fix those trails makes no sense. We need a comprehensive reroute that is sustainable and will protect the natural resources, not just slow the degradation down."

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Call for action

When asked about the top five environmental threats to the Adirondack Park, the Adirondack Council listed "Politics & Funding," saying, in part, "below standard funding and not enough staff dedicated to the Adirondack Park."

The Council also listed "Underfunded Planning" as a threat.

"Visionary, comprehensive, regional Adirondack Park planning, with robust education and outreach is lacking, so inappropriate development, habitat fragmentation and an absence of world class management threaten the planet's largest intact temperate deciduous forest, 87 rare species, the Park's wild character, and efforts to foster more vibrant communities."

David Gibson, managing partner at Adirondack Wild, said the state's ongoing commitment to "stewardship," is a threat, "by which I mean the year-in, year-out challenge to pay for, or not to pay for, full taxes and personnel and non-personnel services needed to plan for, maintain, enforce, and sustain the Forest Preserve and the towns and schools reliant on full ad valorem taxes. The era of retrenchment of State commitments, or the threat of same, is ongoing and chronic. That is in and of itself a top challenge going forward."

Neil Woodworth, executive director of the Adirondack Mountain Club, said the state needs to increase funding and staffing for the DEC and APA.

"As we have been experiencing ever-increasing search-and-rescue episodes, the ranger force has been under a lot of stress because it's rare that a rescue just involves one or two rangers," Woodworth said. "So what's happening is that a lot of rangers are putting in overtime; they're physically stressed. The force at that level is just not big enough of a blanket to cover those needs."

As an example, Woodworth said that no forest rangers were sent out West to help battle wildfires, which typically happens each year. He said that DEC's inability to spare personnel points to an overall lack of adequate staff.

"That's a very important mission, to help other states," Woodworth said. "So they'll help us when we get hit with an extreme emergency. So if we're unable to pitch in, the force is stressed.

"Going on to the rest of the DEC, we don't have enough planners and foresters. Foresters is kind of an old term, but it's really the foresters who have responsibility for unit management plans, making decisions about whether we should have a bridge here, a trail there. And if you don't have enough foresters, then those decisions get delayed."

Josh Wilson, who is executive director of Barkeater Trails Alliance - which builds and maintains ski and mountain bike trails in the northern Adirondack Park - summed up the issue as he sees it.

"It really comes back to this issue: the boom in outdoor tourism and a lot of resources going to marketing, but not a corresponding increase in resources for stewardship and education," Wilson said. "It always comes back to funding. We're doing a really good job marketing the Adirondacks but not a good job keeping up with the resulting increase in visitation."

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DEC budget and staff

In the last 10 years, the DEC budget has ballooned to $3.4 billion from $1 billion; however, much of that increase is due to a multi-year commitment on the Clean Water Infrastructure Act.

According to Erica Ringewald, a DEC spokesperson, in fiscal year 2007-08, the DEC had 3,775 employees. This year, the department has 2,942. But the DEC also has about 1,000 seasonal employees in the summer and 500 or so the rest of the year. Some of those employees are assistant forest rangers, and the department said this year there were 22 AFRs. In DEC's Region 5, which covers the bulk of the Adirondack Park, there are 48 full-time forest rangers.

The push for more rangers has garnered the most attention, but the DEC's public campgrounds - 52 in the Adirondack and Catskill parks - also have fewer employees than a decade ago. The campgrounds are largely staffed with seasonal employees, and the DEC said that in 2009 there were 514 seasonal employees in the Operations Division. This year, there were 422. The department did note that in 2012, about two dozen seasonal positions from Belleayre Mountain ski resort in the Catskills were transferred to the state Olympic Regional Development Authority when ORDA took over the operation of the facility. There were also three fewer full-time, permanent employees in the Operations Division in 2018 than last year.

"Since 2011, staff levels at DEC have been sustained and remain relatively consistent at or near 3,000 after drastic cuts made by previous administrations," DEC Commissioner Basil Seggos wrote in an email. "Overall, DEC's full-time staff numbers have been sustained and the number of Forest Rangers and Environmental Conservation Police Officers have been maintained and are now increasing with the help of back-to-back basic schools in 2016 and 2017.

"Governor Cuomo has established one of the most aggressive environmental agendas in the nation with historic investments in clean water and environmental protection, in addition to nation-leading efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and bolster renewable energy development.

"In addition, the Governor sustained his record commitment to the protection of natural resources with $300 million for the Environmental Protection Fund (EPF). The EPF helps protect water resources through the preservation of open spaces and upgrading sewage treatment plants, among many other environmental initiatives."

Although the number of forest rangers has increased in recent years, the number of positions available has not. Due to attrition, the number of rangers has fluctuated but has not exceeded last year's high of 140. The lowest level in the last 20 years was in 1998, when there were 110 rangers.

Ringewald said in an email that the DEC recognizes the huge influx of Adirondack visitors and is taking steps to address some of the issues.

"The growing popularity of the Adirondack High Peaks is a testament to the unique and unparalleled beauty of the region. Last summer, DEC announced a multi-year, comprehensive effort to promote sustainable tourism, and address public safety in the Adirondacks," Ringewald wrote. "The first phase of actions began in June and July. Popular destinations on DEC lands within the Adirondack Park such as the High Peaks, Dix, Giant, and Hurricane Wildernesses, Baxter Mountain, and the Saranac Lake 6'er peaks, are attracting an unprecedented number of users.

"To improve public safety and reduce impacts to natural resources in the area, DEC held four focus group meetings this past winter to generate ideas and information to support recommendations, particularly to address overuse challenges in the High Peaks region and the Route 73 corridor between Exit 30 of the Northway and Lake Placid in the Adirondacks. The meetings were held in partnership with the towns of Keene and North Elba and involved a wide range of stakeholders. With input from DEC land managers, the meetings helped the agency identify specific strategies and actions to be taken in 2018 and 2019."

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Forest rangers

Scott van Laer, who is a Ray Brook-based DEC forest ranger, also serves as a union delegate for the Police Benevolent Association, which represents rangers, environmental conservation officers, state park police and university police. He said one of the biggest issues is that rangers have become a reactionary force, whereas historically they were far more proactive.

"Staffing levels just haven't kept up with the increase in use, the increase in search-and-rescue incidents and the increase in land, so we have a tremendous loss of services that we provide to the public," van Laer said. "Traditionally, the rangers are the stewards of state land. We frequently do all the stewardship aspects, all the patrols of boundary lines looking for encroachments.

"And because of all the factors that I mentioned previously, we're not able to do all those things the way we did before. Most of my mileage on the trails now is going to rescue someone. In the past, I would spend a lot of time at Johns Brook and Lake Colden (interior outposts), and now I'm denied doing that. I've actually had supervisors tell me I can't do that, that I need to be in a state of ready.

"We just lack the appropriate staff size for the demands that are placed on the Forest Preserve."

Van Laer and the PBA have made a concerted effort - largely successful - to ask many of the towns within the Blue Line pass resolutions asking the state for more forest rangers. Currently, the ranger force has 135 people, but some of those are supervisors and non-field staff. Van Laer said the PBA would like to see 40 more rangers added around the state as each current ranger is responsible for patrolling an average of more than 40,000 acres.

"Whereas, the current level of forest ranger staffing, 135 statewide including supervisors, is not adequate to fulfill their unique mission given the amount of land they patrol and the number of incidents they respond to," the resolution states. "The town board ... does hereby support the PBA of NYS proposal to increase forest ranger staffing to 175 rangers statewide, which is deemed critically important to our community, State land, the environment and the People of the State of New York."

Van Laer said the increase would be targeted to the busiest areas of the state, and the increase represents a tiny fraction of the state's multi-billion-dollar budget.

"We're not looking to add rangers to Long Island; we realize where the meat is and I think everyone else does too," van Laer said. "I do recognize that monetary capture of the user groups is really lacking. ECOs (Environmental Conservation Officers) get money from licensing fees. State park police get money from people paying to enter.

"We're a very good value, and I gotta believe with the size of our budget, there's a way to add 40 positions. Come on, we can do this."

The number of forest rangers isn't the only part of DEC's staff that has remained stagnant, as trail crews, assistant forest rangers and DEC campgrounds have all seen staffing declines in the last decade. Van Laer said the lack of those other positions has also had an effect on the amount of work rangers have to do.

"The main reason I'm not lobbying for other aspects of the DEC - just to point out to readers - is I'm in a different union," van Laer said. "I'm not saying that other entities aren't needed. The one I will list I see that they need to solve is our dispatchers, just because I'm most affected by the lack of a 24-hour system here in Ray Brook.

"I don't want to get in a tug of war saying we're more important. But it's fair to say that we're an emergency response organization that is the front line for the department. But I do recognize further needs within the department."

In years past, a bill requiring one ranger to be hired for every 30,000 acres the state acquires has stalled in the state Legislature. However, the purchase of lands has not stalled as the state has expanded the High Peaks Wilderness Area to more than a quarter-million acres with the addition of the Boreas Ponds Tract and several other large parcels.

Yet Ringewald pointed out that forest rangers have the support of dozens of professional and volunteer groups in the Forest Preserve.

"Rangers are also not alone in the woods on search-and-rescue missions. This year, there are 22 Assistant Forest Rangers positioned across the state as well as High Peaks Summit Stewards, Student Conservation Association Backcountry Stewards, Wildlife Conservation Society Bear Stewards, and crews from the Student Conservation Association Adirondack Program," Ringewald said. "Rangers are also aided by our own Environmental Conservation Police Officers (ECOs), New York State Police, 15 County Sheriff's Departments, and dozens of local police, fire, and first responders inside the Blue Line.

"There are also a host of volunteer groups that aid in searches, like the Adirondack Mountain Club Professional Trail Crew, the Adirondack Mountain Club, the Adirondack 46ers, and the New York State Federation of Search and Rescue Teams, which is made up of 25 teams with a combined membership of more than 600."

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Political will

State Assemblyman Dan Stec, R-Queensbury, represents the 114th district, which covers much of the eastern Adirondacks, including all of Essex County. The Republican is also the ranking minority member of the state Assembly's Environmental Conservation Committee.

Stec said that as the state promotes the Adirondack region, adding more forest rangers should just be part of the cost of doing business.

"Because the number of hikers has spiked and because the amount of land the state has purchased, you need more custodians of the park. You need more boots on the ground," Stec said. "That's a reality that I think most people support. ...

"That's part of the investment. People want to hike, they want to backcountry ski, they want to fish, they want to hunt and that means sometimes they're going to get lost or they're going to twist an ankle."

Stec said that as state lands expand and the number of visitors increases, the DEC should respond with a corresponding increase in staff.

"If you get 10 times more people using it, you've got 10 times the number of people that need search and rescue," he said. "I wouldn't limit my suggestion just to rangers, but to DEC staff. So much of this is getting done by summit stewards, which are volunteers (and) trailhead stewards, which are volunteers. There are a lot of volunteer organizations that have committed a lot to the Park, and they can't be asked to carry more of the burden."

Stec echoed assessments from van Laer and Bauer that within the state budget, there simply has to be money to fund more DEC staff.

"The state taxpayers should be taking care of the state infrastructure," he said. "For a very modest investment in additional people, the benefit to the public (and) to the local economy is tremendous. If we've got to cut somewhere else, then fine, cut somewhere else.

"The amount of money we're talking about in the big picture is not significant, so there should be a way to do this without breaking the bank."

(Lake Placid News Editor Andy Flynn contributed to this report.)

 
 
 

 

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