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Forest Rangers - Search & Rescue Air Boat

Last Updated 10/17/17 @ 1645



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Inception of the Aerial Detection Program

1970 brought an overhaul of the fire detection system. Previously, it relied on as many as one hundred and two fire towers across the State with the greatest number of these in the Adirondack and Catskill Mountains. More than twenty aerial detection flights would replace nearly seventy fire observation stations.

Some of these towers were within the bounds of newly designated "wilderness areas" in the Adirondacks and were deemed non-conforming structures that would be removed during the early 1970's. Others were sold to the owners of the land on which they stood while some were sold to any interested bidders and removed.

About forty of the closed towers were classified as "stand by" and would receive a minimal amount of maintenance so they could be re-opened in the event of serious fire danger. Thirty-five remained operational for another twenty years with the last being fazed out in 1990. Pictured above is District Forest Ranger James Lord discussing an aerial detection route with a prospective contractor.

A Murray Family Photo
Aerial detection got off to a rough start with a fatal accident on the first detection flight of the 1970 fall fire season in western New York. Just after take-off, the plane piloted by Jack Marvin crashed in the village of Hammondsport seriously injuring himself and District Ranger Bob Roche. The only immediate fatality was Forest Ranger Raymond Murray
of Addison, New York. Several days later, pilot Marvin succumbed to his injuries.

Pictured to the right is the memorial in Ranger Ray Murray's honor at the Steuben Co. Civil Defense Training Center in Bath, NY.

Creation of Department of Environmental Conservation
A DEC Image1970 also brought about the creation of the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC). This occurred on July 1, 1970 and it combined into one state agency with all programs designed to protect and enhance the environment.

While the former Forest Districts still remained, they were incorporated into the larger regional scheme. Previously, the Division of Lands and Forests was more or less a line organization from the Division Office in Albany to the Forest District Offices and the field personnel.

Regionalization added another level of management between the ranger in the field and the Central office. Authority and direction would now come from the Commissioners Office to the nine Regional Directors, then to the former Forest District Offices (renamed Regional Sub-office). This management style was deemed necessary as the new agency configured itself to include units from the departments of Health, Agriculture and Markets and various state commissions.

Such traditional units as the Divisions of Lands and Forests and the Division of Fish and Wildlife saw their central control usurped by this new organizational concept and found themselves assuming a somewhat more advisory and program development role. Because of strong leadership, the Division Offices still maintained a certain amount of control over the day to day business of their individual units, but the ultimate authority and direction lay with the Commissioner's Office and the Regional Directors.

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This new super agency took away many of the ranger's traditional responsibilities described earlier, transferring many of them to the newly formed Operations Unit.

Without many of these former responsibilities the rangers were in a quandary as to what their future would hold. Their traditional role in forest fire control would continue and well as their oversight of State-owned lands within their districts, but to what degree?

The rangers search and rescue work would continue but was often in a disjointed fashion. Lost or missing people on large tracts of State land usually fell under the rangers self-assumed responsibility and generally worked out fairly well, however searches elsewhere were pretty much up for grabs, sometimes conducted by friends and neighbors of the missing, a local fire department or rescue squad, or a local, county or state-wide police agency. While the rangers were best suited, experienced and trained for this type of work, their abilities were not widely recognized. That would soon change with the search in Newcomb for 8 year old Douglas Legg.
Rangers in a Quandary Over Their Future
That same period saw the divestiture of the Civil Service Employees Association from one unit representing all State employees to five separate and obviously smaller units representing the different working groups. Operational Services, Professional, Scientific and Technical and the Security Services Units were examples of this reorganization along with a category of personnel designated as Management Confidential. The forest rangers were originally slated for inclusion in the Operational Services Unit based partly on a lot of the maintenance types of work of which they'd just been relieved. A strong appeal by the ranger's chapter, based on its movement toward a more active role in law enforcement, landed them in the Security Services Unit along with the Correction Officers, Conservation Officers and others and were then represented by Council 82 AFSCME. While this was the smallest of the bargaining units, it would prove to be the most powerful and the most adept at representing its members.

The relationship between the rangers local and the Department would be an extremely contentious one for several years to come. While the Department and the Division of Lands and Forests were not enthralled with the rangers becoming more involved in enforcement, there was no clear message or plan forthcoming as to what they felt their future should be. Out of total frustration, the rangers local petitioned the Commissioner to be made a part of the newly created Division of Law Enforcement.

This, needless to say, got everyone's attention and somewhere in the early 70's it was decided that the rangers would assume an enforcement role when the need arose in relation to issues involving the fire laws and the laws, codes, rules and regulations regarding State-own lands under the jurisdiction of the DEC.
The Search for Douglas Legg

The search for an eight year old boy at Newcomb in 1971 would serve as a turning point in the ranger's overall involvement and conduct of search and rescue missions across the State.

The search for Douglas Legg, at that point in time, was the largest search effort ever conducted in New York State for a missing person. It involved multiple agencies and hundreds of well meaning volunteers. The droves of volunteers who would show up unannounced became more of a detriment to the operation than an asset. There were just too many and no way of controlling the numbers or providing adequate supervision. More than one thousand people participated in the effort including as many as six hundred on a single day.

From the onset, there were difficulties amongst the various agencies as to who was in overall charge and what assets should be utilized immediately and what should be held in reserve.

Family members were people of substance, owning Santanoni Lake and the surrounding area, who were not pleased with the effort taking place and consequently contacted and summoned the California based Sierra Madre Search and Rescue Team paying their transportation costs to Newcomb and return. The team, used to searching in the Sierra Madre Mountains of California found the Adirondacks of New York and its dense and often impenetrable undergrowth a challenge to which they were not accustomed.

After 22 days, the search for Douglas Legg was called off leaving troopers and rangers assigned to follow up on any subsequent leads.

And through all of this, in the true fashion of small town America, every resident of Newcomb and the surrounding area contributed whenever and whatever they could to the search effort.
Creation of the Three Specialized Forest Ranger Search and Rescue Teams
One positive development stemming from the Douglas Legg Search was the designation by the Governor's Office and the Department of the forest rangers as the lead-agency for all wildland search and rescue missions in New York State. This was the beginning of a program that expanded in the future to include, high-angle ice rescues, white water rescues and a number of others.

In October of 1971, prompted and approved by the Governor's Office, the Department of Environmental Conservation announced the creation of three specially trained search and rescue teams, each comprised of ten forest rangers and two alternates. Blue Fox Search and Rescue Team, covering the western Adirondacks was under the direction of District Ranger Robert Bailey; Red Eagle, in the eastern Adirondacks was overseen by Asst. District Ranger Martin Hanna and Grey Hawk, operating in the Catskills, was led by Asst. District Ranger Gerald Hamm.

Rangers were provided training in search planning and organization, establishment of ground controls, utilization of volunteers, inter-agency communication and notifications and first aid and emergency medical skills under the newly formulated Medical Emergency Technician program.

Rangers expanded and refined their ground search techniques that they'd been utilizing for many years. The first would have been a cursory or "extensive" search of the area, checking trails and drainages for the missing person. In the event that such an effort was unsuccessful, this would have been followed by a close order or "intensive" search.

Rangers were provided additional resources to aid them in high-angle rock rescues, helicopter assisted rescues and mountaineer equipment that would allow them to go into remote areas and stay for extended periods of time.

The program would expand further to the training and certification of Search and Rescue Volunteers as well as assisting in the development and organization of volunteer search and rescue teams.
Intensive Search Techniques Utilized at the Time
Ground searches as mentioned, took two basic forms, i.e., "extensive" and "intensive." These were developed years earlier by the rangers and were proven very effective when utilized by trained individuals. Extensive searches required the identification of the out-bounds of the search area followed by individuals checking trails, drainages and other routes a person might logically follow from these outer limits toward the location where the person was last know to be. This was often all that was required to discover the lost or missing person.

The intensive search technique was used when the subject of the search was considered to be no longer mobile or possibly deceased. Again, the out-bounds would be identified (shaded in red)and then the search area would be divided into smaller sections to facilitate searching. The parallel lines shown on the map in green were established by running a compass course and trailing a cotton twine to mark them on the ground. Once initiated a group of no more than 7 to 10 searchers would conduct an intensive or close order search between these base lines indicated by the blue arrows. The method has been referred to as "shoulder to shoulder" or "hand to hand" but both are misleading. More accurately searchers would move through the area at inter-visible distances so as not to by-pass the subject of the search or any evidence the subject may have dropped or intentionally left behind.

High Angle Rescue Techniques

Rangers received extensive training is high angle rescue techniques that were later utilized in every region of the State. Geographical challenges at places such as Chapel Pond in the Adirondack and the Shawangunk Range in the lower Hudson Valley attracted large numbers of technical climbers each year. The same techniques were used in lesser know areas where hikers or climbers found themselves in need of assistance or out and out rescue.

Rangers Take Part in the Search and Rescue After Hurricane Agnes

One of the first assignments for the Blue Fox Search and Rescue Team in June of 1972, was participation in the aftermath of Hurricane Agnes in the Corning and Elmira area of New York State.

The rangers were a group of 20 men who joined a larger group of thousands of State Police, county law enforcement, local law enforcement and a myriad of emergency search, rescue and medical personnel who rushed to aid the victims. When the storm finally abated, 128 people had lost their lives, 23 in southern New York. Rangers, whose field of expertise was wildland search and rescue, were thrust into an urban search, rescue and recovery situation.

From the Beginning, Helicopters Were Used in Search and Rescue Efforts
Helicopters are often used in search and rescue missions particularly in the high peaks of the Adirondacks and Catskills. The first to ever be rescued by helicopter was a young bow hunter who was missing for 6 days in the Raquette Lake area. The ship was piloted by "Ace" Howland.

The rescue of a hiker near Blue Mt. Lake who sustained a serious leg injury.

Video courtesy of Keith Bassage

A nighttime extraction of a young woman who had some form of medical issue.

Video courtesy of...

A waterdrop on a remote forest fire.

Video courtesy of...

The wintertime extraction of two hikers marooned on Algonquin Peak.

Video courtesy of the Department of Environmental Conservation

Emergency Command Centers

In order to effectively conduct search and rescue missions, mobile command and communications centers were vital. Pictured is the first such equipment, a government surplus trailer converted to such a center by Department communications technicians.

The "Stump Report"

While the Division of Lands and Forests was undergoing a pay study through the Dept of Civil Service's Division of Classification and Compensation and many titles were being updated and upgraded, the study for the rangers lay dormant for a protracted period of time. This pic is in a way misleading as this section has nothing to the theft of timber buy rather, a comprehensive study of the Forest Ranger force and its duties and responsibilities. This resulting document was known as "The Stump Report" for a three person committee chaired by Ross Stump, Management Consultant and including District Ranger Don Decker and Regional Forester Arthur Flick. The report served as a list of recommendations to guide the future of the Ranger Force.

Though the document was submitted to Commissioner Biggane in December of '73, it was not made officially public for more than a year. Many provisions were pretty mundane, simply dealing with basic organizational and management issues. While others, sure to raise the ire of the Divisions of Lands and Forests and Law Enforcement, were probable reasons its roll-out was delayed so long. Two of these called for expanded law enforcement responsibilities and improving on what was deemed rather shaky enforcement status to give the force "peace officer " status. The Ranger Force was moving toward added enforcement responsibilities much to the dismay of the Division of Law Enforcement and without the blessing of the leaders in Lands and Forests.

Rangers Move Toward an Increased Role in Law Enforcement

Prior to the issuance of the Stump Report, but at the insistence of the majority of the rangers and Council 82, the Division of Lands and Forests reluctantly agreed to expanded enforcement responsibilities and approved the purchase of 150 Smith & Wesson Model 13, .357 Magnum revolvers and accessories. These weapons had their own back story. Though they were approved, funded and purchased in early 1973, they were never issued until a year later.

Near the end of 1973, as Commissioner Biggane was preparing to leave the Department, he indicated to ranger representatives that before he left he would insure that the ranger enforcement status would be improved upon and the revolvers would be issued.

The revolvers were issued in the spring of 1974 and their enforcement status was somewhat clarified, but because rangers were not full fledged "peace officers" under the Criminal Procedure Law, each had to acquire a pistol permit from the county in which they lived, in order to carry the State issued revolver.

Training and qualification would fall to the Division of Law Enforcement until 1986 when the Ranger Force developed its own cadre of instructors and training curriculums.

Some Rangers Opposed the Move
Not all rangers were enthralled with this move toward law enforcement. Many of the older rangers took a position of silent opposition; while this was not a direction they wished to go they conceded they were in the waning years of their careers and would not openly oppose such a move out of respect for the wishes of the younger members of the force.

This is not intended to suggest that all of the younger members of the force were in agreement with this change in direction. A couple showed their displeasure by resigning their positions, while a few others did openly opposed the move. One ranger, so adamant in his opposition, brought suit against the Department and Commissioner sighting a lack of both authority and training to safely conduct certain assigned tasks.

While this case worked its way through the court system, Council 82, the rangers union, was pursuing "peace officer" status through the legislative process. Bills sponsored by Senator Ron Stafford and Assemblyman Glenn Harris passed both houses over five consecutive years, but was consistently vetoed by the governor.

The enforcement status issue would not be resolved until 1980 when the legislature passed and the governor signed the OMNIBUS peace officer bill. Prior to its passage, most if not all peace officers were allowed to carry firearms. The legislation clarified the status of peace officers granting them authority "pursuant to their specialized duties" and specifically prohibited most from carrying firearms. Forest rangers were granted full peace officer status and were authorized to carry firearms in the performance of their duties.
Prescribed Fire

Fire is not always the enemy but often simply a tool to accomplish certain goals whether related to forest management, wildlife management or fire hazard reduction.

Pictured here is a "prescribed fire" conducted to address the issue of White Pine Cone Borers damaging cone production in one of the Department's seed orchards in Oneida County. In this case the Department created the seed orchard by grafting cuttings from the tops of dominate White Pine trees (Pinus Strobus) on to previously planted root stock thereby bringing the cone bearing branches down to within easy reach.

This orchard, while only a few acres in size, provided the Department's tree nurseries with over one hundred bushel of cones each year. The burn conducted by the rangers put the seed orchard back into production providing 100 bushel of viable cones each year. Prescribed fire is brought into play after certain types of softwood logging operations are completed. An operation such as this will leave tons of highly flammable material behind. To eliminate the fire danger the remaining slash will be eliminated by prescription.

Forest rangers write burn plans for prescribed fires. Burn plans identify, or prescribe, the best conditions under which trees and other plants will burn to safely get the best results. Burn plans consider temperature, humidity, wind, moisture of the vegetation, and conditions for the dispersal of smoke. Rangers compare conditions on the ground to those outlined in burn plans before deciding whether to burn on a given day.
The First Time Rangers Were Called to Respond to Western Fires

In August of '79, forest rangers organized and sent their first 20 person crew to the Cabin Fire in the Lolo National Forest, Montana at the request of the U. S. Forest Service. This was the culmination of several years of effort to develop protocols, secure proper approvals and authority, provide training and qualifications and formulate organizational and call-up procedures.

This arrangement was through a cooperative agreement with the U. S Forest Service and has continued on through to the present day. Every year New York sends crews west to assist with fire suppression efforts.

In current times, these crews are lead by forest rangers and are comprised of rangers, other DEC personnel and volunteer firefighters, all of whom have passed rigorous physical testing and completed certain mandated training.

While the Cabin Fire was small by western standards, approximately 1000 acres, it was in rugged terrain and the altitude differential in the burn area was over 1000 feet.

The map designations of H-1, H-2 and H-3 are helicopter landing sites, or helispots, along with the Base Camp and East Camp sites. H-3 is also the location of a "spike camp," meaning that it was a site where firefighters were flown in, equipped and supplied by helicopter, and who spent several days and nights fighting the fire before returning to Base Camp.

This was a very successful endeavor for the crew from New York, referred to as "New York 1", that it paved the way for a good working relationship, resulting in crews going west every year since 1979.

The Search and Rescue Volunteer Program

Developing a cadre of individuals trained in basic search and rescue techniques was another aspect of their overall mandate. To have available a roster of trained individuals was vital to the conduct of efficient search operations. Training was provided to fire departments, rescue squads, hiking clubs and to interested individuals with no connection to any emergency response organization. When an incident occurred that required more than simply a few rangers, requests went out for trained Search and Rescue Volunteers. This went a long way to prevent the on slot of well-meaning but untrained and unequipped individuals that occurred at the Douglas Legg Search.

An unexpected spin-off of the program was the organization and development of volunteer search and rescue teams to support the forest ranger's program. These teams were and are invaluable. One of the first and still active and very much involved is the Oswego County Pioneers Land Search and Rescue Team

Rangers Involved in the 1980 Olympic Winter Games

When the Olympic Winter Games were awarded to Lake Placid for 1980 much preparation was in order. Many of the facilities had to be brought up to Olympic standards as most were built for the 1932 games. Security would be of major importance. It was just eight years earlier in Munich Germany, where 11 members of the Israeli team lost their lives to terrorists.

Because of the thinly populated and mountainous terrain around Lake Placid, officials were taking no chances. The Olympic area was cordoned off and closed to private vehicular traffic. Attendees were expected and required to park in one of several major parking areas and then be bussed to the different venues. The FBI and Secret Service were both on site and tasked with protecting the vice president and preventing or dealing with any signs, threats or reports of possible terrorism.

To deal with regular security issues, a force of one thousand officers was put together to perform venue and access security . This group consisted of eight hundred and fifty New York State Police, one hundred and fifty Environmental Conservation Officers and one hundred Forest Rangers, with fifty at Lake Placid and another fifty performing peripheral security duties.

The Games went off without a hitch from a security standpoint. But, from a transportation standpoint the games got off to a rocky start. The bussing contractor wasn't up to the task and huge numbers of spectators missed the competitions they came to see.

A Greyhound Transportation team stepped in and got things on track in a very short time. During that period troopers, conservation officers and rangers found themselves dealing face to face with large groups of disgruntled visitors.

Military ranks were a product of the Olympics. The State Police and ECO's both had chains of command identified by the military ranks of lieutenant, captain, major and colonel, however, there was no way to easily identify where ranger supervisors fit in the scheme of things. Therefore, Assistant District Rangers were assigned the rank of Lieutenant, District and Regional Rangers the rank of captain, the Supervising District Ranger the rank of major and the bureau superintendent, colonel.
Rangers Gain Full Peace Officer Status Under the Criminal Procedure Law

Full Peace Officer status was granted to the forest rangers in late 1980, when the State Legislature passed and the governor signed the Omnibus Peace Officer Bill that totally revamped Part 2.10 of the Criminal Procedure Law. Prior to the passing of the bill, most if not all peace officers could carry firearms but received little or no training and were often indistinguishable from police officers whose duty it was to enforce all the laws of the State of New York.

Prior to September 1980, any peace officer could purchase a pistol immediately on his id and badge just as a police officer can do today. The main reason why the state legislature enacted this omnibus legislation was to prevent abuses by certain private not-for-profit organizations who used the former statute to circumvent pistol licensing procedures. In addition, the law addressed the carrying of firearms, defined what type of authority a peace officer possesses when acting pursuant to his specialized duties within his geographical area of responsibility. The forest rangers fared well under the new statute, which authorized the carrying of firearms both on and off duty, required a background check for those purchasing firearms "on the badge", mandated a minimum of thirty-five hours of basic training but did not define their specialized duties.
The 1984 Layoff Threat
In late 1983 and early 1984 the Department was in the midst of hiring additional Forest Rangers and Environmental Conservation Officers. The ECO's began their basic training academy in Mid-January. The rangers were mid-way in the hiring process and had hired four people, when the State budget was released and the rangers quickly learned that 50 of their ranks were slated for layoff.

The Governor's budget message stated "A reduction of $935,000 and 50 forest ranger positions made possible by the consolidation of forest ranger districts proposed for 1984-85. The staff reduction plan recognizes improvements in fire control methods and proposed development of more efficient patrol standards while preserving the capacity of this program to respond to emergency situations".

A member of the governor's budget office candidly remarked that "with the flying of aerial detection flights the state could save $900,000 and not have all these Forest Rangers sitting in towers on mountain tops doing nothing." Candid or not, this statement, which found its way into the media, perpetuated the stereotypical notion that forest rangers merely staffed fire towers.

Considering that the only "improvements in fire control methods" in the past decade were the elimination of 70 fire observation stations and the inauguration of 24 aerial detection flights. Consequently, those who espouse this theory believe that the entire debacle was simply a fumbled or failed attempt to close the remaining 35 observation stations.

Cartoon by Ken Mynter - click image to enlarge

Whatever the reason, the layoff proposal was short lived. The ranger force mustered support from all corners of the state from large and varied groups of individual sportsmen, conservation alliance groups, emergency service organizations, county and local government entities and a host of others. Within a very short time the battle was over with the governor and his budget office and the rangers returned to their normal duties a lot wiser from the experience. In the following months the rangers filled additional vacancies.
HEART - Helicopter Emergency Air Rescue Team

Right on the heals of the layoff threat came legislation placing DEC's forest rangers in charge of search and rescue missions in the wild, remote and forested areas of the state. The legislation gives rangers the authority to organize, direct and execute search operations for lost people or civilian aircraft and to conduct rescue operations for injured people or those in serious danger of injury.

A spin-off of that legislative authority was the creation of HEART, the Helicopter Emergency Air Rescue Team. Twelve forest rangers began training for the first team. The training combined helicopter pilots with rangers to streamline the conduct of missions to aid or rescue injured or stranded people from remote areas, fires, floods, airplane crashes and similar emergencies. The entire ranger force continued to receive basic instruction in helicopter rescue techniques and first aid procedures. Members were all volunteers.
Whitewater Rescue Techniques

Another spinoff to this new mandate, forest rangers developed whitewater rescue techniques for the whitewater sections of the Hudson and others rivers. Lacking any form of mechanized equipment, this involved the use heavy lines across the river and a pulley system to effect the rescue.

The Forest Ranger Centennial

New York State's Forest Rangers celebrated their 100th anniversary in September of 1985 along with the Forest Preserve, both of which were created by the same legislation signed by Governor David B. Hill on May 15, 1885. To commemorate their centennial, a book entitled "The Forest Rangers: A History of New York State's Forest Ranger Force" was published by the Department of Environmental Conservation in limited edition, by then District Ranger Lou Curth. Ranger Curth's book followed the ranger's history from their very beginning on through to present times telling a truly fascinating story.

Rangers marched in the celebratory parade ...

... that kicked off the weeks activities.

Forest Ranger Firearms Program

The forest rangers firearms and tactics program was initiated in 1986 with the training of ten ranger/instructors. Because all of those who volunteered were skilled in the use of firearms and their safe handling, the two week course centered around teaching techniques, lesson plan preparation and a fair amount of range time. The new instructors were then certified by the Division of Criminal Justice Services (DCJS).

Pictured are the two instructor/trainers in white shirts. From left to right, in the front row are: Forest Rangers Carpenter, Ezzo, Conklin, Hartmann and Richter (back) Rangers Black, Lewis, Bissonette, Morse, Roberts and Col. Ed Jacoby, Director of the Bureau of Forest Protection and Fire Management.

Instructors supervise shooters on the firing line. Safety is of the utmost importance, both on and off the range.

Forest Ranger Captain Hartmann, Forest Ranger Lewis and Lt. Roberts became the first ranger armorers trained to maintain and repair the bureau's aging inventory of Smith & Wesson, Model 13, .357 Magnum revolvers.

Basic firearms training for peace officers was expanded to include all types of long guns and firing under varying conditions.

Oil and Gas Drilling in the Southern Tier

In the mid 1980's the Forest Rangers from Regions 7,8 & 9 were tasked to do Pre-Site and Post-Site inspections for gas well drilling on both State and Private lands. At that time there was great interest in the Medina Gas Formation in Western New York. The Department's Division of Oil & Gas was overwhelmed and understaffed. An agreement was made to fund several forest ranger positions and provide training and specialized equipment. In turn, the forest ranger staff in the three regions provided the manpower to do the necessary inspections.

Pre-Site Inspections consisted of locating on the ground the actual site where the well was to be drilled from maps submitted by the drilling companies. This required the map and compass skills that the rangers routinely used on the job. In addition, all necessary setbacks; from water supplies, residences, roadways, wetlands and unit boundaries were inspected and noted. Pre-Site Inspections were very time sensitive and had to be conducted on short notice in all kinds of weather.

Post- Site Inspections, conducted after drilling operations were completed, looked for compliance with all drilling regulations, primarily that the site was restored to a natural condition. Open pits on sites were used to store drilling fluids and salt brine from the conventional drilling and fracturing operations, so pumping and removing all fluids from on-site and providing approved disposal was an important consideration.

According to DEC's website: " Oil, gas and solution salt mining wells are economically important in New York State with more than 75,000 wells drilled in the state since the late 1800's; about 14,000 of these are still active and new drilling continues."
Yellowstone Burns

In the summer of 1988, lightning and human-caused fires consumed vast portions of Yellowstone National Park. More than 25,000 firefighters were cycled through the park combating 50 wildfires, seven of which grew to major proportions. Local crews and crews from all over the United States were involved but it was Mother Nature who finally extinguished the last of the flames in October. When it was all over, 793,000 of the park's 2,221,800 acres had burned.

Pictured is an animated frame that shows the fires progression from July 7 through October 2.

Below are three slideshows depicting the damage done and how the park has been reborn by fire.

Yellowstone Aflame
Images Courtesy of the US Park Service

NYS Forest Rangers at Yellowstone
Images Courtesy of retired Forest Ranger Gary Lee

Yellowstone Reborn
Images Courtesy of retired Forest Ranger Paul Hartmann

Smokey Bear Turns 45

The year 1989 brought Smokey Bear's 45th birthday. It was officially celebrated at Lake Placid as well as other locations across the state.

It included a cake, sixteen foot square and four feet in height. Baked and donated by Paul Smith's College, it was made of hundreds of sheet cakes consisting of different flavors and was assembled on site by the students. The cake was built to serve 1,500 students at his party held in the Olympic Arena in Lake Placid.

Some ad campaigns come and go but Smokey's fire prevention message is still current. It's been said that next to Santa Claus, Smokey Bear was the most recognized figure amongst youngsters.

For his efforts at this juncture, and many other fire prevention programs and presentations, Forest Ranger Frank Dorchak was awarded the Silver Smokey Award by the National Advertising Council and the U.S. Forest Service in 1992. The Silver award is the highest honor given for wildfire prevention service that is regional in scope. A maximum of five awards may be given in any year.

To date, Ranger Dorchak is believed to be the only Forest Ranger to received such high recognition for his efforts in wildfire prevention.

Last of the Fire Towers Are Closed

In 1990, due to budget constraints and the existence of aerial fire detection contracts, the last remaining fire towers were closed. They were Rondaxe, pictured here, and St Regis, Blue and Hadley Mountains in the Adirondacks and Red Hill in the Catskills.

While not a popular move, it was generally accepted that fire towers had out-lived their original purpose and intent as the first line of defense against wildfires in the state. In the recent past, fewer and fewer actual fires were initially reported by the towers. Reports were coming more and more from the person or persons who caused the fire and these went directly to the local fire departments.

This said, the only fires that might burn for extended periods of time without detection were the occasional lightning strike. When such a strike caused an ignition, the resulting fire would generally burn perhaps a few hundred square feet that then simply burn itself out.

What was lost in this dollars and cents decision was the secondary purpose and value of the towers, that being public relations. These were among the few places where the public might encounter "the Department" and these exchanges were often informative and of an extremely positive nature.

Forest Rangers Receive Their First Airboat
To aid in whitewater search and rescue efforts the first of several airboats was acquired in 1991. It was launched at the Port of Albany with all the pomp and circumstance normally saved for the launching of ocean going vessels. Many emergency service organizations were present as Commissioner Jorling passed the keys of the craft over to Bureau Superintendent, Col. Ed Jacoby.

Forest Ranger Strategic Plan

After a failed attempt at developing a strategic plan by the Division of Lands and Forests, it was concluded that the Division was too diverse to reach consensus on any of the larger issues. Consequently, the ranger supervisors felt confident that they could develop their own plan for the Bureau of Forest Protection and Fire Management. The twenty page document they produced shocked the agency as it was far reaching.

The plan called for the creation of a Division of Forest Rangers, removing them from the Division of Lands and Forests. It also called for the return to the earlier command model, where information and direction flowed directly from the Division Office to the regional captains and on to the rank and file, thus doing away with all the problems operating under a matrix form of management.

The most contentious of the provisions was the upgrade of the ranger force from peace officers to that of police officers. While many thought that these were all way out of reach, their more recent history shows that all have been accomplished.

The Search for Sara Anne Wood

The most protracted search effort in recent times was that for twelve year old Sara Anne Wood in August of 1993.

Young Sara was returning by bicycle from the church where her father was pastor to their home a short distance away when she disappeared. During the initial search, her disabled bicycle was located in a wooded area next to Hacadam Road Rd. Four hundred volunteers searched a three square area in the event that she had somehow left the road and had injured herself, but to no avail.

As the rangers and volunteers completed their search of the immediate area, the state police investigation was considering a darker and more sinister scenario. Once the ground search was completed the state police continued with roadside searches over an extended area thinking strongly that foul play was involved.

Rangers Issued New Sidearm's

After much consideration and evaluation, the forest ranger's firearms instructors recommended that the old Smith & Wesson, 357 magnum revolver be replaced with the SIG Sauer, Model P229 DAK, 40 cal. pistol.
Fire Tower Restorations

With all of the fire towers now closed, the Department was looking to remove those that remained for concerns about public safety and vandalism. In 1992, Pharaoh Mt. Tower suffered the greatest indignity of all as it was cut down by persons unknown, some say over local issues. A short time later Blue Mt. Tower was vandalized but the tower was not destroyed. Furnishings from the cabin were burned, windows were broken in both the tower and cabin, and an unsuccessful attempt was made to burn the cabin. These two acts brought fire tower restoration and preservation to the forefront.

Blue Mt. would be the first of numerous fire towers across the state to be restored for future generations. This was a joint effort among several entities. According to an article in the Adirondack Daily Enterprise, the Adirondack Mountain Club, the Department at Ray Brook, and in particular Forest Ranger Greg George, the Town of Indian Lake, Hamilton County and the Adirondack Architectural Heritage group were all participants in the Blue Mountain Project. Private donations and a grant from the Hamilton County Board of Supervisors helped make the project a reality.

The Microburst in the Northwestern Adirondacks - July 15, 1995
The microburst was a weather phenomenon that can be far more dangerous and damaging than a tornado. Straight line winds was another name for what caused 300,000 acres of damage, ranging from minor to total as depicted below, in southern St. Lawrence and northern Herkimer counties. Winds in excess of 100 miles an hour swept over the area in the early hours of July 15, 1995 blocking highways, disrupting electricity and leaving hundreds of hikers and campers stranded in what's called the Five Ponds Wilderness Area. The rangers instituted one of the biggest rescue operations in their history, air lifting or escorting the stranded to safety. When it was finally over, sixty six people were provided assistance ranging from simply being escorted to safety, to being rescued by helicopter.

Forest rangers survey the damage caused by the microburst in an area south of the Hamlet of Wanakena.

The Serious Wildfire Season on Long Island - August 1995

Shortly after the Microburst, the rangers were called to Long Island to assist with the wildfires that burned through scrub oak and pitch pine damaging or destroying numerous homes. A stubborn fire at the center of the Long Island Pine Barrens had consumed more than 2,500 acres of dry brush at Rocky Point.

The second and much larger fire, the Sunrise Fire, engulfed both sides of Sunrise Highway. While numerous fire departments from across the Island fought the fire head on from the ground, it was here that the forest rangers ...

... were tasked with oversight and coordination of the three New York State helicopters and five New Jersey Stearman Bi-planes that had vast experience fighting fires in the NJ Pine Barrons. By early September, the Sunrise Fire was extinguished, but the results of those two fires were disastrous. Approximately 7,000 acres had burned, numerous homes and small businesses suffered damage, and 400 people were forced to evacuate their homes.

Throughout the incident, little recognition was given to the dozens upon dozens of volunteer and paid fire departments and the hundreds upon hundreds of people on the ground, fighting the blaze, or providing other valuable support. Most of the rhetoric at the time, surrounded the need and use of the federal behemoths pictured here which really weren't suited for use in populated areas.

The Forest Ranger Division is Created

The first and one of the most notable changes brought about by the Forest Ranger's Strategic Plan, was the creation of the Forest Ranger Division in 1996. Formerly a bureau within the Division Lands and Forests, the ranger force was now equal is status. A short time later, on the commissioner's level, the new Office of Public Protection (OPP) was established. Included within OPP were the Division of Forest Rangers and the Division of Law Enforcement.
A Severe Ice Storm Hits Northern New York

In January of 98, life as we all know and accept it, ceased to be. A storm, six days of rain with temperatures around the freezing mark, severely affected northern New York and New England as well as southern Canada. The storm interrupted all forms of travel, damaged vast acreages of forests, knocked out power in large areas, stripped power lines from poles for miles, destroyed major transmission towers, all leaving the affected populous essentially house bound and reliant upon communities coming together and Yankee Ingenuity to keep their families fed and warm. After the storm abated, it was weeks before all the damage, to the electrical grid and travel corridors, was repaired.

The rangers, worked along with thousands for emergency service personnel and volunteers to get through the crisis and attempt to prevent any loss of life. There were a few fatalities, but if memory serves correctly, no one died from the cold. A few accidents and/or foolish actions caused a handful of people to lose their lives.

Red August - 2002

During the exceptionally dry summer of 2002, forest rangers responded to numerous wildfires throughout the state. A summer fire season is an extremely rare occurrence and differs from traditional weather patterns that cause a split season with periods of high fire danger in the spring, before the vegetation greened up and in the fall after the leaves had fallen and dried.

Forest Rangers Granted Full Police Status

In 2006, DEC forest rangers were granted full police officer powers under legislation approved by the state legislature and signed by Gov. George Pataki.

The legislation allows forest rangers to perform police duties, and came in response to the varied situations forest rangers encounter, particularly while patrolling state lands in more urban areas of the state.

The job of forest ranger has evolved to its present status, that combines the skills of both the traditional firefighter and police officer. Forest rangers are responsible and authorized to enforce all the laws of the State of New York, with greater emphasis on the environmental conservation law. Due to the unique nature of their job, they are now afforded the protections of Section 1.20 of the Criminal Procedure Law.

Col. William F. Fox - The Father of the New York State Forest Rangers

Colonel William F Fox, Superintendent of Forests, was instrumental in the creation of the ranger force which came about in 1912, three years after his passing.

Fox visited Germany to study scientific forestry methods in the early 1870's and went on to become assistant secretary to the Forest Commission in 1885, and then the first Superintendent of Forests in 1892.

As early as 1898 Col. Fox was recommending "a more compact and systematic organization of the corps of firewardens" and the "appointment of an assistant who shall be designated as the supervisor of firewardens or chief firewarden." He went on to say "I would embrace this opportunity also to call attention to the urgent need of some efficient system for patrolling the Adirondack and Catskill forests. To this end I would suggest the organization of an adequate force of forest rangers who should be assigned to districts of a suitable area, which should be patrolled constantly and thoroughly."

In 2009 Deputy Commissioner Hamilton and a cadre of rangers gathered to honor Col. Fox's memory on the 100th anniversary of his passing.

An NYS DEC Photo         

August 9, 2014 - Smokey's 70th Birthday


Speakers On
2016-Graduates from the Latest Academy

Congratulations and welcome to following new members of the New York State Forest Ranger Force; Forest Rangers Yuko Ashida, Hopewell Junction, Forest Ranger Adam J. Baldwin, Tupper Lake, Forest Ranger Jared T. Booth, Morrisonville, Forest Ranger Katherine M. Fox, West Nyack, Forest Ranger John A. Franceschina, Fort Montgomery, Forest Ranger Andrew S. Lewis, Wilmington, Forest Ranger Dylan T. McCartney, Bainbridge, Forest Ranger Melissa L. Milano, Newcomb, Forest Ranger Peter F. Morehouse, North Creek, Forest Ranger Hannah R. O'Connor, Lake Clear, Forest Ranger Brandon S. Poulton, Newcomb, Forest Ranger William F. Roberts, Groton, Forest Ranger Zachary L. Robitaille, Depew, Forest Ranger Matthew J. Savarie, Schroon Lake, Forest Ranger Nathan J. Shea, Westernville, Forest Ranger Nathan M. Sprague, Williamsville and Forest Ranger Ryan P. Sullivan, Poland, NY.