A new foundation aims to help New York forest rangers buy gear they need to save lives
Forest Ranger Andrew Lewis has a lot of outdoor gear that's meant to keep him safe when his job gets dangerous, like different kinds of helmets.
"There’s a helmet for fire, there’s a helmet for rope rescue, there’s a helmet for swift water, there’s a helmet for ATV operations, helmet for the snowmobile, so lot’s of helmets," Lewis said.
On his lawn outside his home in the Adirondacks High Peaks, Lewis has laid out bins full of camping gear, rows of boots for all different kinds of weather, skis, snowshoes, a boat, and paddles. He pulls out gear from one of his hiking backpacks.
“Couple extra headlamps— we always have a bunch of headlamps because we’re always handing them out because we’re often helping people that don’t have them. Freeze-dried meals, some fuel, cookstove...”
Rangers not only have to think about gear for themselves, they also have to think about the people they’re helping in the woods who may be hurt, hypothermic, or hungry.
Lewis purchased everything he's pulling out of his pack with his own money. While New York State does outfit rangers with clothing and gear, Lewis and other rangers say their state-issued gear isn't sufficient, so many also end up using their own personal gear and spending money on new gear they say is necessary to do their job.
Lewis has been a Forest Ranger since 2016. He remembers initially being impressed with the gear he was issued after he graduated from the academy, which included jackets, a hiking pack, helmets, a headlamp, microspikes, and crampons.
"At first you’re given a lot of gear, and you come out of the gate as a new ranger and you’re like, ‘Man, I just got a lot of gear, this is awesome.’ Then you start getting into what you’re really doing and you start realizing, ‘Man, I need that really bad.’"
Like mountaineering boots, packable hip waiters, and extra puffy jackets. He’s also bought multiple sleeping bags, shelters, skis, snowshoes, heavy-duty mittens, and lots of warm layers.
Lewis said he learned the hard way that he needs to carry extra puffy coats in his pack, recalling a winter rescue early in his career when he sweat through his only coat.
“I’m standing there, freezing, going ‘Okay, I know what I’ve got to buy now.’ And guess what? That night, I’m on the internet shopping and that’s a daily occurrence for a new ranger."
Speaking on background, a few new rangers said they've spent their own money and use their own gear on the job.
One ranger said they purchased about $4000 worth of outdoor gear so far. Another said they bought a $400 pair of insulated mountaineering boots, far surpassing the state’s annual boot stipend of $150.
So Lewis and two other NYS forest rangers have taken matters into their own hands, establishing the Forest Ranger Foundation, a non-profit to raise money for gear and training. Lewis says it’s a way to fill the gap from what the state provides to what rangers say they really need.
“The foundation is here to say, ‘We’re here to relieve some of the burden of some of that.’ Like it’s a need, it’s frustrating that it can’t be met, but there’s another way," says Lewis.
The rangers launched the foundation back in August. At the time, their boss, DEC Commissioner Basil Seggos, applauded their work.
“I couldn't be more proud of the rangers starting a foundation," Seggos said. "The state police have a foundation as well. That’s really important for the sustainment of the ranger family for years to come.”
The police foundation funds trainings as well as college scholarships and relief aid for trooper families. The ranger foundation will fund trainings, but it’s also focused a lot on getting them more gear, better gear.
But Seggos said back in August that’s not necessary. He said rangers shouldn’t need to turn to the foundation for gear.
“We absolutely have the resources, I’ve told my command staff to get them whatever they need, whether it’s new boots, clothing, sleeping bags," Seggos said.
“That’s certainly their goal. It’s not possible. It just isn’t.”
Lewis said he’s tried to work with management on buying gear and partnering with brands, but it’s really complicated and bureaucratic. Every one of the 155 rangers around the state is different. They have different needs and desires. They work in different conditions.
Lewis said state protocols make even the simplest purchase into a complex or even impossible one.
“The foundation is not saying, ‘you’ve failed us and we have to now fix this,’ we’re saying, ‘Okay this is a very challenging, heavy lift to properly outfit these widely diverse forest rangers doing widely diverse things. Let’s step in and help out and meet these needs so that rangers aren’t getting bitter or being underequipped.”
Since the launch of the Forest Ranger Foundation in mid-August, they’ve raised about $7500, though Lewis said they haven’t really had time to do much marketing or outreach. They’ve been really busy with rescues lately.
But Lewis is hopeful. He said their target donors are folks who know how important it is to have well-equipped rangers.
“If you’re somebody that recreates, if you like to push the limits in the woods, you want to know that the best possible responders are coming for you with the best possible equipment.”
And the best possible training. Lewis’s goal is that the foundation will fund trainings that will make New York State Forest Rangers among the most skilled search and rescue teams in the world.