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Erie County re-establishes ranger program to educate, monitor safety of parkgoers

Chuck Bartlett has been the supervising park ranger for Erie County for just over a month.

During that time, he has been struck by the unnecessary risks some hikers take on the Eternal Flame Trail at Chestnut Ridge Park. That includes ignoring warning signs about staying on the trail that are meant for their safety.

“I think some visitors think, ‘It’s Orchard Park, what could be possibly be risky?’ and feeling overconfident, they don’t fully understand the risks,” Bartlett said.

“Each day we are down there asking people not to climb around the waterfalls. The creek bed is primarily on bedrock, and it can be very slick, yet you’ll also see people in flip-flops sliding all over the place.”

The trail was the scene of a fatal fall on July 2 that claimed the life of a Hamburg teen, one of several falls that occurred over several weeks.

At Akron Falls Park, the issue is more likely to be swimming and jumping off the waterfall despite signs that say not to.

Bartlett is one of three full-time park rangers – along with fellow Western New Yorkers Brian Siklinski and Jerry Krajna – who began in late July, after County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz re-established the program. It had ended after the 2004-2005 budget crisis led to the loss of more than half the Parks Department’s staff.

The rangers – now sporting olive-green uniforms received Wednesday and equipped with portable radios worn in holsters to communicate with one another and the county Sheriff’s Office – are asked to enforce rules and regulations for all of the county parks, forestry properties and small-pocket habitat parks – about 30 properties and 10,000 acres in all. They also have begun offering guided tours of the Eternal Flame Trail and the Akron Falls Park creek bed.

The county’s main southern parks are Chestnut Ridge, Sprague Brook and Emery, plus two beaches, Wendt and Bennett.

The largest northern parks are Como, Akron Falls, Ellicott Creek and Isle View.

The combination of compliance and education – each of the rangers has a background in the environmental sciences – is what Poloncarz had in mind when he said he discussed the issue of reviving the park ranger program with Parks Commissioner Troy Schinzel in 2012.

“I remember going to Chestnut Ridge Park and going to Emery when I was young, and seeing parks workers and park rangers and being impressed and educated by the information provided by them,” Poloncarz said.

“I wanted to reintroduce the ranger program not only to protect our parks and to ensure that when people come into the parks they have a safe experience, but also to get an educational component out of it.”

Bartlett said the rangers’ priorities will shift from the summer, when the priority is the county’s main parks, to the fall, when it will be the forests,to the winter with sports activities and the spring when it will be helping forestry staff with maple production and demonstrations.

Invasive species are a concern, and Bartlett said he expects the rangers to work with the county forester in battling the emerald ash borer.

“It is certainly a concern, because there are large ash populations on several of the park properties,” Bartlett said.

For now, the rangers said they’re trying to get comfortable with the compliance aspects of the job, including effective ways to approach people, and gaining familiarity with the parks and forests themselves.

“It’s definitely a learning process for all of us,” Siklinski said. “There is a lot of property, and each has its own unique set of issues.”

He knows some of the parks well, since he grew up in Hamburg and frequented county parks.

“I spent a lot of time growing up exploring these parks. It was a big part of my childhood. I used to hang out at the Eternal Fame, probably back when nobody knew about it,” he said.

Siklinski said he’s found most people enjoy the parks as intended. “The vast majority of people follow the rules. But you do see some people putting themselves out in danger, and that’s what we’re there for,” he said.

For Bartlett, who grew up in Darien, the job is made-to-order after he had bounced between short-term projects.

“It’s hard to find stable work in the environmental field,” said Bartlett, who has worked all over New England spent a year in Everglades National Park in Florida, where he worked for the University of Vermont collecting scientific data for a long-term project.

“We’re thrilled to have them,” Schinzel said. “We’ve already got the public going up to them and offering thanks for the outreach.”