A life in the woods
Retiring forest ranger captain began career as lumberjack in Tupper Lake
RAY BROOK — It was a Wednesday, June 24, 2015. The sun was out, and two escaped inmates from the Clinton Correctional Facility in Dannemora were on the run. Day 19 of the search, and there was still no sign of Richard Matt and David Sweat.
State Department of Environmental Conservation Forest Ranger Capt. John Streiff, of Region 5 in Ray Brook, held a clipboard as he stood at attention. He was in a line with men in suits and law enforcement uniforms behind the State Police podium outside the old Cadyville Elementary School. Since the search had moved into the backcountry, it was his experienced team of rangers who helped lead the way through some of the thickest woods in the North Country. They were concentrating on the hamlets of Owls Head and Mountain View at the time, just north of his home in the Franklin County town of Duane.
“Searchers are methodically moving through an area where it’s not only difficult to navigate, but the distance in front of you is sometimes only a few feet or less,” Streiff said when it was his turn at the podium.
Streiff was proud of his team, proud that his forest rangers were asked to perform this job. After all, it’s something they do on a regular basis, even though it’s usually lost or injured hikers, not escaped convicts.
Two days later, Richard Matt was shot dead off state Route 30 south of Malone. David Sweat was still on the run and was captured two days after that in the town of Constable less than 2 miles from the Canadian border.
“The nightmare is finally over,” Gov. Andrew Cuomo declared later that day.
For Streiff, the three-week search was one of the highlights of his 26-year career as a forest ranger, almost 19 years as a captain. He retired in October and spoke with the News by phone on Nov. 2 about his time at the DEC.
A life in the woods
John Streiff grew up in the Rochester area, but his migration to the North Country seemed inevitable. So did his career in public service. His mother was from the Franklin County town of Dickinson, locking in a North Country connection. Plus, his family had a cabin in the Finger Lakes, they were into hunting and fishing, and they vacationed in Ontario.
“So I was very much attached to the woods,” he said.
Streiff also comes from a long line of public servants. His father, grandfather and great-grandfather were city firefighters.
“I like to say that I combined my love of the woods with our family tradition of firefighting and became a forest ranger,” he said.
Streiff never had that conversation with Mom and Dad, saying, “Hey, I want to spend my life in the woods.” But he does remember one defining moment. He was a teenager, and the family was on vacation. Their car had reached the junction of state Routes 86 and 30 at Paul Smiths.
“My father pointed to Paul Smith’s College, saying that’s where you go to become a forester,” he said. “And I thought that was pretty interesting. Shortly after that, I looked up Paul Smith’s College, and within a year or two, I signed up and attended.”
In 1983, after two years at Paul Smith’s College, Streiff graduated and took a job in Tupper Lake — as a lumberjack. Then he began working for the International Paper company, first in one of their mechanized harvesting crews to supply pulpwood to their mills, and around 1987 he was hired as a forest technician. His family moved to Vermont for just under a year and then moved back to the Champlain Valley. He rose to the rank of forester until he left IP in 1994 to become a DEC forest ranger.
Streiff’s first assignment was in DEC Region 3, based in New Paltz, working in Orange and Sullivan counties near the Delaware River.
“During the days of 9/11, I was promoted to lieutenant, and then later on in the spring of 2002, I was promoted to captain,” he said. “That’s when I returned to the North Country.”
DEC mission: “To conserve, improve and protect New York’s natural resources and environment and to prevent, abate and control water, land and air pollution, in order to enhance the health, safety and welfare of the people of the state and their overall economic and social well-being.”
LPN: As a captain of forest rangers, how did you see your role in that mission?
Streiff: I looked forward to, when I became a forest ranger, working for preservation, working in the Forest Preserve and public safety as well. I’ve had a good career in logging and forestry, and I decided I wanted to change avenues and conserve and protect the state’s bountiful resources initially in the southern Catskills and the Adirondacks.
LPN: There’s a large education role as a forest ranger. What was that like for you? Were you a natural people person?
Streiff: I think I acquired some of those skills very early on delivering newspapers. If you know anything about being a newspaper boy or a newspaper girl, you delivered papers and then you would have to collect every week, go to see people and get the money from them for their subscription. Those were some of my first PR skills.
With International Paper company, we did a lot of education, especially on behalf of the Ticonderoga mill. …
Then we rank some of the hats we wear as forest rangers as fire control, search and rescue, and education/law enforcement. They kind of go hand-in-hand. Education is the first step before you write a ticket or before you have to take more serious consequences. So being a forest ranger and educating people on the wise use of the woods and their own safety, it kind of came naturally after my career.
LPN: As a captain, did you have that opportunity, or were you more in an administrative role?
Streiff: Certainly as a ranger 1, the field ranger when I worked in Region 3, we did a lot of outreach. Not only education of the users, but education of firefighters and those wanting to help us with search and rescue and wildland firefighting. …
But even as a captain and administrator working in Ray Brook, I had the opportunity for a lot of outreach, a lot of interaction with the media on behalf of the forest ranger force and the DEC, which is actually a high point of my career. It might not have been one-on-one on the trail, but certainly I did enough press conferences and outreach as a regional ranger to get the word out.
LPN: What do you see going on right now with the popularity of hiking in the Adirondacks right now?
Streiff: I think what we’re seeing has never been seen before. And I know that the High Peaks have had their high points in the 1970s and 1990s. …
As a point of conversation, (Former Region 5 Public Participation Specialist) Dave (Winchell) and I have had this conversation, being that’s his venue, education. And he thinks it’s an anomaly, and it will subside, and he may be right.
But obviously our governor has done a very productive, very successful, job of outreach to boosting tourism in the Adirondacks — prior to the COVID, prior to the pandemic in 2020. And then when the pandemic hit, people just had no other social gatherings to go to. They flocked to the woods, beginning in March and it’s not subsided.
… We think that they’re first-time users. Based on social media, based on people saying, “Hey, stay local. Hike local.” We’re such an avenue to the millions of people from Philadelphia to New York to Boston, right up the seacoast. So I think what we’re seeing is obviously not normal.
LPN: What would you have done if the Canadians were able to cross the border?
Streiff: I don’t have a good answer for that. We would have thrown our arms up, and I don’t know what the situation would have been. I think some of the numbers, they can be up to 50% of our backcountry users, especially here in the Eastern High Peaks. We had our hands full, literally, with just the folks in the states, and I don’t know what we would have done. Believe me, it did not go unnoticed and did not go unappreciated that the international border stayed closed to our neighbors north of us.
LPN: What are some of the challenges for the forest rangers? Are there enough forest rangers in the Adirondacks?
Streiff: We certainly can use more forest rangers, and we can certainly use more foresters. We can use more folks in operations. With the attrition going on throughout the DEC, there’s vacancies. … And we can use more state police. … I just think we’re at such a juncture right now with the fiscal crisis that’s riding the heels of the pandemic, those who are still on the force, they have their work cut out for them. But it’s not just rangers.
LPN: What’s your opinion on limiting the access to the Eastern High Peaks with a permit system?
Streiff: Obviously, I’m getting out before anything is cast in concrete, as a retiree. It probably seems like something’s got to give, and I don’t know what that answer is and certainly discussions are ongoing on a permit system.
… We had things in line with the shuttle and with the better trail up Cascade through (Mount) Van Hoevenberg. So there are some pieces in play that just did not come to fruition due to the pandemic and the fiscal crisis.
… I don’t think there’s anything wrong with doing some sort of a test pilot permit system and seeing how that works. We have such a porous system of all of our trailheads and the open areas we have to access not only the High Peaks but the entire park and public lands. It will be a challenge, but it’s worth a try if our executive and our land managers decide we should do that.
LPN: What are some of the highlights of your career?
Streiff: Just becoming a forest ranger was a highlight in 1994 and attaining that, and then obviously getting promoted to a lieutenant. Believe me, when I was sitting at Paul Smith’s College back in 1981 through 1983, I never thought I’d be back up here — and driving past my alma mater twice a day to get to Ray Brook and be the regional forest ranger in the Adirondack Park and have such a great team of rangers under my command that have worked for me.
Certainly the many large searches, the fires we’ve had, the education component, the challenges with increased use. It’s a myriad of things that I look back on, and not everything to our satisfaction. There’s some folks that were never located; we could never bring closure to the family for whatever reason. That stands out as accomplishments not made, certainly not for a lack of effort.
Definitely the Clinton Correctional manhunt (June 2015) was a high water mark for myself personally, but also for the ranger force. The rangers showed in those three weeks in June just every attribute they had, whether it be the local knowledge of the ranger in the woods, the ability to manage a large search and rescue crew being with our partners in corrections, and also our emergency management and the ability to run that search under the State Police. I was just so proud of the work our rangers did and the cooperation we had with all the law enforcement agencies in the North Country: local, county, state and federal. And that we never had any injuries and both those individuals were apprehended successfully.
LPN: Is there a more typical search and rescue that stands out?
Streiff: Certainly the search for Paul McKay (January 2014), the captain for the Australian Defense Force who came over here and ended up taking his own life on Scarface Mountain. A shout-out goes out to (Forest Ranger) Scott van Laer for his tenacious work and all the rangers that worked on that.
Because of the fatality, it’s not a happy moment. But certainly worked with the Australian Defense Force and all the other agencies and bringing closure to Capt. McKay’s family, that was a satisfying feeling. We still recognize that in Saranac Lake with Anzac Day.
As I thought about it today doing this interview, there’s several families we couldn’t give closure to, and one of them being Colin Gillis, who went missing in Tupper Lake a number of years ago. Those are things that are kind of in the back of our minds … that we just could not locate some of these individuals.
LPN: What’s the future like for forest rangers in the Adirondacks?
Streiff: I think the work is there, and the job security is there. As you look behind you and see who’s coming up in the ranks, there’s an awful lot of quality people in the ranger force. They’re in the field, or they’re becoming supervisors. … And so I’ve got great hope and great pride in the ranger force in what they will do.
Based on the increased use, a lot of people are realizing that they can telecommute successfully. They don’t have to be in an urban environment. They can be up here in the North Country. They can work from here, and they can recreate from here. Whether the numbers this year are an anomaly, we’re still going to see strong numbers, I think, with so many people relocating up here and trying to enjoy the Adirondack Park.
LPN: Do you see the Forest Preserve in more danger or more threatened than it has been in the past because of outside forces?
Streiff: Obviously, it’s being loved to death. I don’t see the threats coming from timber trespass or encroachments and things like that. … But the workload is going to be the amount of people that want to use it, and what they leave behind, whether it’s trail degradation, garbage or litter or human waste, and what to do with the masses.
Many of us think we should be in the Forest Preserve for solitude, and yet there seems to be a large percentage of people that don’t mind seeing 30 other people on top of Cascade (Mountain). And that’s the new norm, evidently.