“My personal experience and readings convince me that preservation
of wild places is the best of American traditions.
Wilderness is at the heart of the nation.
It tells one generation what is right and lasting about
all generations and about the land itself."
—Michael Frome

Dan, Dave

Forest Rangers: Thin Green Line
by David Gibson

Gary Lee, retired Ranger in the Moose River Plains, speaks of the last nesting golden eagle he observed in 1972.
Gary Lee explains and Dave Gibson listens.
Photo ©2010 Ken Rimany
With Ken, Gary Lee points out a culvert on the road which washed out six times while he was a Ranger
Gary Lee talks to Dan Plumley about the great white pine which still overlooks the South Branch of the Moose River.
Photo ©2010 Ken Rimany

Imagine the “forever wild” Forest Preserve without an admired, well-supported and trained cadre of Forest Rangers to take care of it. Adirondack Wild: Friends of the Forest Preserve is working to ensure that scenario is forever remote. Last year the NYS DEC Forest Rangers celebrated 125 years of care for and custody of our wild lands like the NYS Forest Preserve in the Adirondacks and Catskills. It was an historic occasion far too few of us took note of. Adirondack Wild has, like the Association for the Protection of the Adirondacks before it, made a commitment to support the Forest Ranger force as crucial members of a thin green line that protects our precious wilderness inheritance.

Forest Ranger History:
The forerunners of the Forest Rangers were fire wardens charged by law in 1885 to fight forest fire by leading, organizing and equipping volunteers to extinguish any blaze. These incendiary beginnings of the force and the evolution to Forest Rangers are faithfully captured in a book by Forest Ranger Louis C. Curth published by his Department of Environmental Conservation in 1987 in honor of the 1985 Centennial of the Forest Preserve. Lou Curth writes:

“For many youths entering the employment market, their occupational choices are increasingly indoors and desk bound. Young people are horrified to see workers busy at jobs they don’t care about. Compared to such choices, the job of the Forest Ranger enjoys a romantic appeal with America’s young men and women unmatched by any other occupation. The idea of testing one’s mettle working in a wilderness setting, and the tangible sense of accomplishment from helping to protect our natural resources have struck a responsive chord among young job seekers.” “Forest Rangers serve as the eyes and ears of the Department of Environmental Conservation. Dealing with the public, as they do, puts them at the cutting edge of DEC and its programs, and they are constantly on the lookout for situations harmful to the environment.”

From Louis C. Curth’s The Forest Rangers: a History of the New York State Forest Ranger Force, 1987 by the NYS DEC.

The legendary Clarence Petty was a district Forest Ranger in the northern Adirondacks, where he supervised members of the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). He writes in the foreword to Lou Curth’s Forest Ranger History:

“The Forest Ranger, often working alone in remote areas under adverse conditions of weather, rugged terrain and travel, sometimes lacking needed equipment, also requires self-reliance and the ability to improvise under stressful circumstances that few other occupations demand…. The public has repeatedly gone to the polls and made known the intent to see that the Forest Preserves are free of exploitation and retained in their natural unspoiled condition…. We should look back with satisfaction and appreciation on the last century of forest preserve protection mandated by the electorate and implemented to a large extent by the New York State Forest Rangers, the chief protectors of the Adirondack and Catskill Preserves.”

Interactions with Rangers:
It has been a privilege to interact with many admirable Forest Rangers too numerous to name, but who are imprinted on our memories. They wear their uniform with understandable pride, but also use it to best advantage. The uniform gets public attention. The best Rangers take advantage of that learning opportunity, and also possess keen knowledge of their own district, including its backcountry trails, and the people in the community they could recruit to help them on a patrol, search and rescue, forest fire or special project. The Forest Ranger is the public face of the Department of Environmental Conservation, and their ambassadorship for the forest environment really does make a positive impression and help prevent bad things from happening or from getting worse.

Last September, Adirondack Wild spent a day in the field with retired Forest Ranger Gary Lee, who patrolled the Moose River Plains Wild Forest for thirty years beginning in 1966. His intimate knowledge and active concern for the Plains since his retirement continues to benefit public use and enjoyment of this magnificent wild forest resource. Gary’s duties were incredibly varied, from supervising road maintenance, keeping culverts in good repair, engaging with the thousands who flocked to the area to camp and to hunt, to monitoring of the area’s famous white-tailed deer herd. In the early 1970’s, Gary kept watch over the Adirondacks’ last nesting Golden eagle.

An Ounce of Prevention:
About ten years ago, we attended a meeting about a Wild Forest area of the Forest Preserve. Snowmobile trails deep in the Wild Forest were being abused and the environment damaged by ATV riders. Some of them were local, others from outside the area riding on these trails in violation of laws designed to keep wild forest wild. The Forest Ranger for that district grew up in the area and knew many in the room. During a break in the meeting, he engaged some of them. He related to them very easily having grown up with them. In a friendly manner, he explained that ATV use on the Forest Preserve is not permitted, and outside of the Preserve only pursuant to relevant highway laws. He knew he had support from other local people who were afraid to have their kids play outside because of some very reckless ATV operators.

Mostly the interactions ended in laughter, but his message got across. The Ranger took advantage of the moment, and commanded respect. Local people acknowledged he had a job to do, and that he would enforce the laws in a friendly but persistent manner. He would engage and educate first, and be tough if he had to be with repeat violators. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure was his motto. ATV abuses began to decline in that district as a result of that Ranger’s efforts.

Retirements and budget cuts taking a toll:
The DEC website tells us that as of 2008 there were 106 field Forest Rangers statewide, and some 26 Lieutenants, Captains and Directors. When Lou Curth wrote the Forest Ranger history in 1985, there were 102 rangers. The numbers of rangers in the Adirondacks has run about 40-44. This “official” information still on the DEC website is badly outdated. In the past year and in the months ahead, as many as a dozen veteran rangers statewide will have taken retirement, and the number of recruits replacing them has dwindled to zero because over the past three years the State has eliminated the Forest Ranger and Environmental Conservation Officer Training Academy due to budget cuts. In the months ahead, there may be as few as 35 or fewer Forest Rangers in the Adirondack Park. The Catskill Park also faces big gaps in Ranger patrols. In the central Adirondacks alone, two active Rangers are surrounded by three large vacant districts left by veteran retirees. In 2010, all 26 Assistant Forest Ranger positions – the seasonal staff that works with the Rangers in large, demanding districts – were eliminated.

Rangers are also very restricted in how often they are re-equipped, what they can spend, how many miles they can drive. Their non-personnel budget has been cut 40% since 2008. As one Ranger explained, “with cuts this deep, we’re struggling. We are performing as Rangers, but not nearly at the level we could be.”

New Job Challenges:
These days, one is hard pressed to encounter a Forest Ranger on the trails or in the woods – at the very time when the recreating public is most in need of their services. And their jobs have become much more complex. Since becoming a part of the DEC Office of Public Protection around 1995, law enforcement has become a big part of their jobs. Sometimes, Rangers are pulled away from their patrols to enforce against substance abuse in crowded places like campgrounds. Respect for Ranger authority is often challenged under these circumstances, and Rangers are often thrust into potentially volatile situations.

In addition to their responsibilities on the Forest Preserve, Rangers are also now responsible for 770,000 acres of Adirondack private land protected by conservation easement. Each easement area is unique in the extent, kinds and means of public access. Forest Rangers must come to know these new conservation areas, and enforce provisions for conservation of natural resources and public access.

Balancing law enforcement responsibilities with their land stewardship obligations presses hard on each Ranger in the field, and on their supervisors. Only Forest Rangers know the wildlands best, and feel a deep sense of fulfillment and obligation to stewardship and public contact in the outdoors. As one Ranger told us, “we must remain approachable to the public.” When it comes to the Forest Preserve and other wildlands that demand care, stewardship, regular patrols and first responders, only Forest Rangers are trained and prepared to do that job with excellence, not the otherwise essential State Police, Environmental Conservation Officers and Sheriff’s patrols. As a field ranger has told us, “you can teach enforcement, but you can’t teach a love for being in the woods, and for communicating with the public. I love this job for those reasons. I’ve learned how to do and apply law enforcement when I have to.”

Communication and Coordination:
Forest Rangers know that they must communicate what they do better, more frequently, and in more media. This includes better communication and maintaining a higher profile within the DEC itself so that the Rangers can better ensure their independence as a division and, simultaneously, encourage stronger coordination between them and their brothers and sisters in the Environmental Conservation Police and the DEC Divisions of Lands and Forests, Operations, and Fish and Wildlife.

Measuring Performance:
Ranger work is often unsung. Educational work in their community has a big impact, but it is difficult to measure lasting results. DEC Rangers perform some of the most difficult searches and rescue operations in the world, and are known across the nation for their coolness and organization in outdoor emergencies, including fighting forest fire. However, this rarely results in frequent state and national exposure. However, Rangers who diligently work on public communication and user management techniques and, when necessary, law enforcement to reduce damage to the Forest Preserve are frequently rewarded by reduced littering, less soil erosion, revegetation of damaged campsites and volunteers who help convey the conservation message. This kind of environmental restoration should be better documented.

As the DEC budget is slashed and Governors seek efficiency and consolidation, Adirondack Wild: Friends of the Forest Preserve will be working with Rangers and other field personnel to ensure that wilderness values and education for action to protect the Forest Preserve remain a high priority. It is a worry that the smallest division of the Office of Public Protection – Forest Rangers – would simply be swallowed up into a larger law enforcement body. Commissioner Grannis assured us that would never happen under his watch. We are confident that remains the commitment of his successor and the Governor. As Forest Rangers look out for our welfare in the woods, let’s keep an eye out for them and give them the respect and support they earn, and that the Forest Preserve demands.

Continue reading the next article on Safeguarding the Wild >

8] Posted 02/22/11
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12/14/11 Water Resources and the Adirondack Resort
more >
11/29/11 Reduce the Large Spatial Impacts of ACR
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11/29/11 November bushwack more >
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09/10/11 River Management by BackhoeLows Lake Court Ruling more >
05/02/11 ACR Should Prompt Reform of APA Project Review  read more >

04/22/11 Conservation Easement Regulations, Standards Needed  read more >

04/11/11 Celebrating and Safeguarding the Catskill Forest Preserve, and the Benefits of Wild
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03/21/11 David Gibson and Dan Plumley testify concerning Adirondack Club and Resort   read more >

03/07/11 Adirondack Club and Resort Would Fragment Adirondack Forests. Public Hearing Scheduled. Make Your Voice Heard   read more >

02/22/11 Forest Rangers: Thin Green Line  read more >

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ADK ALMANACK - Writings by David Gibson

Wilderness 50th

The mission of Adirondack Wild: Friends of the Forest Preserve is to advance New York’s ‘Forever Wild’ legacy and Forest Preserve policies in the Adirondack and Catskill Parks, and promote public and private land stewardship that is consistent with wild land values through education, advocacy and research.

Top left, Moose River ©2010 Ken Rimany; Field Notes photographs ©2011 Ken Rimany. Wild Action Now photograph ©2011 David Gibson

Peter Brinkley, Honorary Chair
Terry Jandreau, Chair
Kenneth J. Rimany, Partner
David H. Gibson, Managing Partner
Mobile: 518.469.4081

Adirondack Wild: Friends of the Forest Preserve    Founded 1945   PO Box 9247 • Niskayuna New York 12309 | ©