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The largest class of New York Forest Rangers graduated. Diversity is a work in progress

 The largest class of New York State Forest Rangers recently graduated in Lake Placid.
Emily Russell
The largest class of New York State Forest Rangers recently graduated in Lake Placid.

The largest class of New York State Forest Rangers recently graduated in Lake Placid. The ceremony was an emotional culmination to months of training and years of determination among the new graduates. The ranger force is now larger by more than 30%, though state officials say diversifying the force is still a work in progress.

Hundreds of friends and family packed into a Lake Placid ballroom last Friday to watch 38 men and women become New York State forest rangers.

Two by two, the rangers march down the middle of the aisle dressed in their green uniforms with wide-brimmed hats.

The graduation marks the end of more than six months of intensive training at the SUNY ESF Ranger School in Wanakena and at the SUNY ESF campus in Newcomb.

For some of these graduates like Dave Corey, this is a milestone they’ve been dreaming about for years.

“When I was younger I was hiking Mount Colden with my parents," Corey said. "And on the way down there was a ranger headed down and I stopped and looked and was like, ‘Man, that’s got to be the coolest job ever.’”

Corey grew up outside of Albany and now lives in Tupper Lake. This graduating class has rangers from all around New York — from Saratoga Springs to Syracuse, from Long Island to Long Lake.

One by one they’re called up on stage to get their diplomas. Tom Snye, from Tupper Lake, cheered on his son Neilson from the audience, and said watching him receive his diploma was an emotional moment for him. “It’s something he’s wanted to do all his life," said Snye.

 Neilson Snye, with his two children, a photo of him with his late mother and aunt, and his father, Tom Snye.
Emily Russell
Neilson Snye, with his two children, a photo of him with his late mother and aunt, and his father, Tom Snye.

Neilson was class president of this class of rangers. Snye wipes away tears, both of pride but also grief. His wife, Neilson’s mom, passed away while Neilson was at ranger academy.

"The only thing she ever wanted to see him do is graduate," Snye said. "She’s with me today. She’s here.” Along with losing his mom, Neilson also lost his aunt while he was at the academy.

“It wasn’t easy," Neilson continued. "Friends and family, the support team I’ve had and then the 37 new brothers and sisters I found in the academy, they helped me through this whole process and I’m very proud of them and I’m proud of my family, the support we’ve had everywhere.”

These rangers will now be deployed across New York state. They’ll be called up for search and rescues, to fight wildfires, to patrol state land, among many other duties.

“We’re medics, we’re firefighters and we’re police," explained graduate Allison Rooney. "We’re a combination of all first responder positions.”

Allison Rooney is from Keene and is one of ten women graduates in the new class. Rooney volunteered with the rangers before becoming one herself. She said she always felt equal to the men during the academy and wishes more women would go through the training.

“The women that came were above and beyond exceptional and I think that there are far more women who could have shown up to this program, but maybe short-changed themselves," Rooney said. "I think that other women should know that they’re absolutely capable of being in this position.”

Rooney and the other women graduates do add more gender diversity to the force. Of the 159 rangers in New York state, 21% are now women. DEC Commissioner Basil Seggos, who spoke at the graduation, said gender diversity among rangers is a work in progress.

“I’m not satisfied with where we are yet, but I’m really encouraged," Seggos said.

Governor Kathy Hochul pledged earlier this year to have 30% of the state’s law enforcement be women by 2030. Seggos said he wants to see that goal met for racial diversity, too, which is lagging even farther behind.

“We need to reflect New York and New York is a very diverse state and if we’re not diverse in our agency, we’re less effective,” Hochul said.

This graduating class grows the force by more than 30%. Seggos said he’ll keep pushing to add more resources and more rangers.

Lawmakers and green groups in the Adirondacks have been advocating for more rangers for years. Rangers themselves have said at times they’re overworked and understaffed.

Willie Janeway, who heads the Adirondack Council, said the park will need even more rangers in the future.

“When we think of threats like climate change and soaring use, having this additional wave of new and more diverse rangers is a great plus," Janeway said. "We still have a long way to go, but today we are celebrating this big step forward.”