June 16, 2009: Press Release: DEC Honors William F. Fox, “Father” of the Forest Rangers

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DEC Honors William F. Fox, "Father" of the Forest Rangers

Advocacy Led to Modernization of Fire Patrol 100 Years Ago

ALBANY, NY (06/16/2009)(readMedia)–

The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) today held a ceremony to honor William F. Fox, the "father" of the state’s modern-day forest rangers, on the 100th anniversary of his death.

Fox, a lieutenant colonel in the Civil War, became New York’s "Superintendent of Forests" in 1891. He quickly came to the conclusion that the then-current fire patrol system — which used "fire wardens" (firefighters who only worked when there were fire emergencies) and local ad hoc firefighters — couldn’t handle the job of forest protection. He wanted a paid staff – a new "forest guard" service — to cover the Adirondacks and Catskills. Fox wrote a report to state leaders outlining how he’d organize the patrols: each ranger assigned to a township seven-miles square, residing in a log cabin built near the center of the township — but in the woods, not a village. This forest guard "would keep a sharp watch on any skulker who might be a possible incendiary." In sum, Fox said he wanted to shift the emphasis from reacting after fires started to patrolling the woods before.

Despite Fox’s advocacy, the state Legislature did not act immediately. Meanwhile, towns became reluctant to enlist local firefighters because of costs. Then came massive fires in 1903 (500,000 acres burned in the Adirondacks) and 1908 (605 fires over 368,000 acres across the state), finally prompting elected officials to take action. In 1909, Gov. Charles E. Hughes signed legislation that brought sweeping changes to the Forest, Fish and Game law that included the creation of a fire patrol service in Adirondacks and Catskills. Fox died shortly thereafter at age 69.

Further legislation followed, replacing the "Forest, Fish and Game Commission" with a "Conservation Commission" and creating the title "forest ranger" in 1912. Though he didn’t live to see his vision fully carried out, Fox is still credited with being the father of the forest rangers. One hundred years later, the DEC, which evolved from the Conservation Commission, today employs a statewide force of 134 uniformed Forest Rangers. Their mission of protecting the state’s natural resources remains consistent with Colonel Fox’s vision.

The ceremony was held at Fox’s gravesite at the Village Cemetery in Ballston Spa, Saratoga County. Fox was born in Ballston Spa and lived most of his adult life in Albany.

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