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120 Years Ago, Wildfires Gave Rise to NYS Forest Rangers

120 Years Ago, Wildfires Gave Rise to NYS Forest Rangers March 20, 2024
Photo courtesy NYS Department of Environmental Conservation
Photo courtesy NYS Department of Environmental Conservation

The smoke from the distant wildfires that drifted over Lake George last summer are probably an approximation, albeit a dim one, of 1903.

That summer, the late Clarence Petty once recalled, “Heavy smoke from the disastrous forest fires which occurred in the northern Adirondacks so alarmed ‘sports’ rusticating on the Upper Saranac Lake that my father and other guides were kept busy transporting them to Saranac Inn by guide boat where they planned to take the train south and out of danger. But they were thwarted because the train could not reach the Saranac Inn station due to burned out wooden trestles. A north wind carried the dense smoke over New York City where they found it necessary to keep the streetlights on all day for several days because the sun was almost totally blocked.”

Petty, who became a New York State Forest Ranger in 1946, said the forest fires of 1903 and 1908 were the true impetus for the creation of the modern Forest Rangers, although, to be sure, the 1885 legislation establishing the Adirondack Forest Preserve provided for “fire wardens.”

When Col. William F. Fox became the first Superintendent of Forests in 1891, he exercised his new authority to replace the Fire Wardens with Rangers. 

According to the Conservation Commission report of 191l, the Forest Rangers were given “the full police duties relative to protection of State lands,” including their protection from fire.

Although he died in 1909, two years after the title, duties and responsibilities of the forest ranger force were formalized with the establishment of the Conservation Department, Fox is commonly regarded as the father of New York’s Forest Rangers.

In the early 1960s, Governor Nelson Rockefeller introduced measures to expand and modernize the forest ranger force.

According to Lou Curth, author of “The Forest Rangers: A History of the New York State Forest Ranger Force,” those measures were also a direct response to forest fires, including one in West Glens Falls.

“These improvements enabled a whole generation of forest rangers (including me) to respond to the huge increase in fires, large and small, that we handled successfully during the drought years of the 1960s. Those crucial preparations made our success possible,” Curth wrote in a recent note to Adirondack Explorer magazine.

Today, “The Forest Rangers have primary responsibility for the care, custody and control of five million acres of State-owned land and conservation easements across New York, the vast majority of which is in the Adirondack Park,” writes Peter Bauer, the founding executive director of Protect the Adirondacks. “The average Forest Ranger is responsible for patrolling 53,752 acres. In 1970, it was 28,516 acres.”

The increase in the typical Forest Ranger’s area of responsibility has been accompanied by an increase in the public use of the Forest Preserve, leading to a twofold increase in the number of search and rescue missions, according to Bauer.

As the curators at The Kelly Adirondack Center at Union College note, the history of the Forest Rangers reflects the history of conservation in New York State. As public pressures upon the resources of the Forest Preserve expand, so, too, do the demands placed by New York State upon its Forest Rangers.

Nevertheless, one hundred and twenty years after the fires of 1903, the prevention of forest fires remains among the Forest Rangers’ priorities. As Lou Curth noted, “As more and more people choose to build homes near Adirondack forests and recreational visits to the Adirondacks are becoming more popular than ever, the risks fire danger risks seem to be increasing for many reasons. Now is the time to get ready for future fires in a drier Adirondack region. When that time comes, if there are sufficient Forest Rangers with adequate resources, they will get the job done.”

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