“We consider ourselves the ‘Swiss Army knife’ of rangers,” says Andrew Bajardi, one of seven rangers who patrol the Mohonk Preserve. “Our jobs are similar in duties to a park ranger’s or a forest ranger’s, but we’re a nature preserve, so a lot more of our work as Mohonk rangers is geared toward land stewardship and education.”
The Mohonk Preserve protects and manages more than 8,000 acres of land encompassing mountain ridges, cliffs, forests, fields, streams and ponds. For its rangers, the priority is land stewardship, says Bajardi, followed by visitor support, which plays out in many ways. “We function as interpretive guides, educating the public on what we are as an organization and on what we have in terms of environments, and then safety is the other part of that; it’s an enormous concern for us.”
With visitors to the Preserve tallied in at 165,000 every year, there’s a lot that can go awry. Although it isn’t always the obvious: Bajardi says that as risky as rock climbing is perceived to be, climbers tend to have better “situational awareness” of the conditions they’re in, whereas a safer-seeming hike can sometimes end in trouble when the hikers don’t prepare well enough, heading out in the evening without enough light, or without bringing water or knowing what trail system they’re on.
But having said that, with the Preserve being one of the most highly used rock climbing areas in the country, the majority of the rangers’ search-and-rescue responses are related to climbing, Bajardi says. “It’s primarily extricating people off the cliffs, which is very specialized. We’re probably one of the most active high angle teams in the country, and definitely among the most practiced.”
The rangers at Mohonk have put that experience to use by developing the Preserve as a search-and-rescue center for the entire Northeast. They hold trainings for themselves and for guides from rock climbing services that are permitted to work on the Preserve along with DEC forest rangers and staff from other preserves and land groups in the region, including Sam’s Point and Minnewaska State Park. “We also give them basic training in the event that we need assistance,” Bajardi says, “so they know the basics and can support us.”
Along with the search-and-rescue training is the EMS portion of what they do. “We do a lot of first aid-related trainings, too,” says Bajardi, “and by the end of 2015, the majority of the rangers will be trained to be wildland firefighters; in the mountains or woods as opposed to structures. Rangers also work with The Nature Conservancy and the DEC and we are a support to the state with wildland fires if our assistance is needed.”
In addition to serving as the Preserve’s interim chief ranger, Bajardi is the team’s medical and education specialist. He developed a program with the U.S. Air Force’s 103rd pararescue (mountain rescue) squadron to help them become more comfortable in a mountain environment, with the Mohonk rangers receiving medical training in return. “We have a lot of great resources to become more efficient at what we do,” says Bajardi.