News and Updates

We Need More DEC Forest Rangers In The Field

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Article From the Times Union Newspaper

by: Fred Lebrun, Published 8:15 pm, Saturday, December 24, 2016

There can no more joyful Christmas than in the Niskayuna homes of the two young hikers rescued in good condition after two frigid days and nights from the windblown snowy brow of Algonquin Peak in the Adirondacks.

The pair, Madison "Maddie" Popolizio, 19, and Blake Alois, 20, were astoundingly lucky. The situation they put themselves in had tragedy written all over it.

As can be expected in these days of pervasive social media second-guessing, opinions run the gamut from how well prepared they were to whether they should have been hiking at all to the summit of the second highest mountain in the state, given the predicted changeable weather. Especially with one pair of snowshoes between them.

I'll go instead with the assessment of the DEC rangers who were at the scene, who said the two were reasonably well-equipped with the basics. And I think most will agree that once they were in trouble, they showed good judgment in staying put, carved themselves a snow cave in the spruce tangle they'd slid into and did the best they could to give themselves the best chance.

But the truth of the matter is, whether they were going to survive this ordeal had nearly everything to do with their rescuers getting to them in time, because they weren't going anywhere without them. The rescuers were well aware, and experience informed them time was running out. Daily Gazette writer Zachary Matson in his splendid piece on the rescue highlights the drama of rescuer Don Mellor hearing Maddie's faint voice just below the summit as hypothermia was progressing dangerously for Maddie. Two days and nights of searching in challenging conditions by an army of forest rangers and selected volunteers was finally over.

Eventually came the dramatic airlift by state helicopter under harrowing conditions, followed by universal well-deserved thanks for all the rescuers. A heroic effort.

But a couple of points about that. Chances are, one or more of those same DEC rangers have been out looking for somebody else lost or in trouble since then, probably more than once. It has become what the rangers do, even though they are supposed to be primarily the human extensions of DEC's constitutional role as steward of the state's natural resources. Their main job is environmental protection, not human rescue.

But with nearly a search and rescue a day somewhere in the Adirondacks, and with a modest106 rangers to cover the state, it's easy to see what is being left behind: Back country patrols. I'm told by veteran hikers it is rare to see a ranger walking the trails and summits anymore, which is especially noteworthy because of the popularity explosion social media and tourism campaigns have brought to hiking the Catskills and Adirondacks. As this newspaper and the Adirondack Explorer have well chronicled just this last year, that explosion has brought far too many uneducated in the ways of responsible hiking to mountains that cannot tolerate the abuse. The bad old days are back again on many of the most popular trails, with more and more refuse, toilet paper blooms and herd paths.

At this time of year, that explosion translates into increased winter peak bagging, not always by those adequately prepared or experienced, putting both participants and rescuers in repeated peril.

The short of it is we need more DEC forest rangers in the field, and a fresh look at curbing the traffic. The number of forest rangers hasn't changed since 2007. All the while we keep adding tens of thousands of acres of new recreational lands that need stewardship — read: policing, without enough policemen. Add to that a vigorous campaign to lure downstate tourists to upstate recreations — all those pretty mountains — and we have a looming crisis on our hands.

As hellbent as the governor is on promoting the natural charms of upstate, we need the resources to keep a balance for the sake of strained natural resources. I never thought I'd be writing this, but it's becoming obvious we have to start limiting the flow of the great numbers of hikers on several of the overused eastern high peaks in the Adirondacks. What we witnessed this past summer and fall is unacceptable. What the Catskills, so close to the city, routinely experienced in degradation was beyond unacceptable.

For years, there's been talk of some sort of fee system for hikers in New York such as exists out West, and in Baxter State Park in Maine, for example. And reimbursement for rescues when negligence is involved, such as in New Hampshire. Fees are not a popular idea, and I don't like them much either. I'd much rather hope that a robust education campaign on several fronts would be enough to curb the onslaught and instill greater respect for the mountains. But I'm not sure that's as valid a premise as it once was, and certainly doesn't stand a snowball's chance in the field without an army of forest ranger facilitators and educators.

An interim measure suggested by a veteran hiker to bring the numbers down during the peak hiking season would be to create no-parking zones near all the trailheads from the Northway to Lake Placid on Route 73, allowing perhaps room for a dozen to 15 cars at each trailhead. Vigorous ticketing and towing would get the word out in a hurry, and quickly spread the crowds out to less-used trails. Could that work? Don't know, but something's got to change here. It's getting out of hand.