Thursday, July 19, 2018

New York needs more forest rangers

If you visited the Adirondacks in recent years you were likely overwhelmed by the crowds.

Perhaps you planned on hiking one of the 46 high peaks -- such as Marcy and Colden – or even lesser mountains elsewhere in the Park (like Bald/Rondaxe) and quickly realized that everyone and his brother had the same idea. It’s not uncommon in the summer to see cars overflowing from designated parking areas and lining the roads for sometimes hundreds of yards.

You might have turned around and searched out trails less traveled or maybe you joined the masses on their ascent. If you chose the latter, you were likely taken aback by the throngs on the summit. Each one of those cars likely held a family or a group of friends, meaning dozens, and sometimes hundreds, were tackling the climb at once. It wasn’t what you expected going to the Adirondacks -- you went there because you wanted to get away from civilization.  

Where are all these people coming from -- haven’t we been told that the computers forced everyone indoors and away from Mother Nature?

The opposite has occurred. The power of social media – the shared experience, the photographs, the desire to beat the Joneses – has driven people outdoors to see what their friends saw and do what they did. Every time someone shares on Instagram a picture of the view from say, Mount Haystack, it’s incentive to join in the fun.

This is not just anecdotal, not just a feel that things are busy in the wilderness. It’s real. In the 10 years ending 2015, foot traffic at Cascade alone more than doubled from 16,000 hikers a year to 33,000. Over that same period, Van Hoevenberg saw a 62 percent increase in hikers – 53,500 people climbed the peak in 2015. Those are just two trails!

Because of that, many areas of the Park -- and the infrastructure and the environment -- are facing serious overuse.

Look at parking. Last fall, in advance of the Columbus Day crush, as a means to curtail dangerous and destructive roadside parking and traffic jams the Department of Environmental Conservation announced that hikers would not be allowed to use the parking areas for Cascade, Porter and Pitchoff Mountains. They were forced to park at Mount Van Hoevenberg which had unsuspecting hikers add another 4 miles round-trip to their hikes.

That was just one weekend, a symptom of a greater crisis. A study found that 35 parking lots in the High Peaks were designed to hold fewer than 1,000 cars yet frequently had more than 2,000 trying to park in them on any given day in the summer.

This surge in hikers has led to an environmental nightmare. The unsuspecting are trampling alpine plants that took decades to restore. Trash and human waste are being left along the trails. Animals are being harassed. Nuisance bears are being trained. The very definition of wilderness has been eroding along with the trails that lead into it.

Not only is the Park itself facing overuse, but so are the men and women who are trying to manage the people, places, plants, and peaks. We have too few forest rangers to handle all of those concerns.

Today, there are 137 forest rangers responsible for 4.9 million acres of DEC-administered lands. Back in 1970, there were 140 forest rangers and only 3.5 million total acres of DEC land. So, over the past half century, the number of forest rangers has slightly declined while the DEC has acquired roughly 30 percent more land and – using the Adirondacks as an example – a few million more users.  

In 2012, NYS rangers patrolled 2,600 interior miles on foot in the High Peaks. 4 years later, that number was down by nearly a third. That’s because of the lack of manpower and changing conditions. Forest rangers are now required to focus on parking and traffic control and trail clean-up, instead of doing what they were hired to do – that is, protect the environment and the people using it. Too few men and women are able to save the trails and endangered species or educate hikers on where to go, how to dress, and what to look for.

That last part has led to something of a public health crisis. A lot of those Facebook users looking to work their way into the Adirondack 46ers club aren’t experienced or competent outdoorspeople. They don’t have the right clothing, footwear, shelter, food, or water, which puts them at risk. Somebody has to save them and the overworked rangers are. Rangers completed 62 search-and-rescue incidents in the High Peaks in 2012. By 2016, there were 98. Putting such hard works on so few puts the rangers at risk as well as those they are trying to save.  

The rangers and countless Adirondacks organizations have tried hard to get the state to add more rangers. But, it’s fallen on deaf ears. Another budget session came and went in Albany and neither Governor Cuomo or DEC Commissioner Seggos saw the need to add to the payroll.

Maybe it’s time they heard this message from the rest of the state. Many of us here in Western New York go there with family and friends, so we need to speak up. The Adirondacks belong to all of us. The Park is a public asset that should be enjoyed, safely and naturally. In order for that to happen we need more rangers.   

From the 23 July 2018 Greater Niagara Newspapers and Batavia Daily News

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