Enforcement vs. Education: What the Evolving Role of Forest Rangers and the Government Shutdown Might Teach Us About Environmental Management

Posted on February 12, 2019 by Edward A. Hogan

Two recent, and apparently unrelated, newspaper articles should cause us to focus upon the appropriate balance between law enforcement and education in environmental management.

The first article described a number of deliberate acts of vandalism in National Parks during the recent federal government shutdown.   In the absence of park staff, illegal off-road driving was reported in several National Parks.  In Joshua Tree National Park, delicate and ancient Joshua trees were kicked and Christmas lights strung on others.

The second article reported on a recent proposal to reclassify state civil service job titles.  While on its face it appeared routine, it has resurrected some persistent concerns with the public perception of environmental and natural resource protection. The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (“NYSDEC”) has requested the New York State Department of Civil Services reclassify its 134 Forest Rangers into the Environmental Conservation Police Officer(“ECO”) title.  Both Forest Rangers and ECOs work within the NYSDEC Office of Public Protection:  the Forest Rangers in the Division of Forest Protection and the 330 ECOs in the Division of Law Enforcement.  Both Divisions were established in the late 19th century:  forest rangers were originally known as fire wardens and ECOs as fish and game protectors. 

While still having the traditional responsibility for prevention and suppression of wildland fires, Forest Rangers are now also charged with organizing and conducting wildland search and rescue operations.  ECOs have had their role of enforcing fish and wildlife laws expanded to include air, land and water quality violations.   Both Forest Rangers and ECOS must complete the same 26-week basic training and are sworn police officers, authorized to enforce all state laws.

While the civil service reclassification has been described as a title upgrade for the Forest Rangers, which would result in a small increase in initial salary, NYSDEC emphasized that it is not a merger of the two Divisions but, rather, a move to ensure that the Divisions are treated equally in the civil service system.  While generally supported by the environmental community, there are those who express lingering concerns with the gradual degradation of public’s attitude towards Forest Rangers and the potential impact on their effectiveness in educating the back country recreational (hiking, whitewater rafting, rock and ice climbing, etc.) community.  As retired Forest Ranger Pete Fish lamented, before becoming sworn police officers and thus always armed, their image was not so closely associated with being police officers: “We used to drive around in these red trucks.  We had a good reputation.  People would wave at us.  Everyone loved a ranger. Once we started driving around in the green trucks like the cops, there was a difference in attitude toward us from the public”.  

As attorneys dealing with the full range of environmental laws, we focus on significant policy issues.  But the most frequent encounter most citizens have with the application of environmental and natural resource laws is at the state level, with front-line staff, and in the recreational context.  Thus, the public’s perception of, and support for, environmental laws is greatly influenced by their experience in the context of recreation use of natural places, and thus their perceptions should be as important to us as they are to retired Ranger Pete Fish.

Each state (and the federal government) has a broad range of natural resource and environmental issues it addresses:  fish and game enforcement, forest fire prevention and suppression, wildland search and rescue, back country recreationalist education, and environmental quality enforcement.   How they organized and staffed these tasks has, and will be, influenced by the evolution of those programs, their historical experience and present and future needs.   

So, what is the right balance of education and enforcement in wildland recreation?  Police officers or ranger-educators?  Or both?

Are the recent incidents in the National Parks evidence that as a society we have failed in our education role and that management of wildlands are better addressed by an enforcement-based approach?

In contrast to the several vandalism incidents that have occurred, there have also been hundreds of volunteers keeping the National Parks open during the government shutdown.  These volunteers were spending their time and their own money hauling out trash and keeping toilets cleaned and stocked with supplies.  Perhaps education has been successful after all.



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