The Forest Ranger's Centennial Celebration

Final Update: 04/11/2018 @ 1600

Forest Rangers Are a Part of the Security Force at 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.
Forest 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 spin-off 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.

Below are three slide shows 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.