William F. Fox, Father of NY Forest Rangers

Last week the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) 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 was born in 1840 in Ballston Spa, Saratoga County, and graduated from Union College in Schenectady in 1860. He served in the Civil War as Captain, Major and then Lieutenant Colonel in the 107th New York Volunteers and later wrote a number of books on both the Civil War and forestry. Fox’s 1902 History of the Lumber Industry in the State of New York, written under the auspicious of Gifford Pinchot, is considered the first authoritative work on the logging industry in New York.

Fox 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 graveside at the Village Cemetery in Ballston Spa, Saratoga County.

This story was cross posted at Adirondack Almanack, the leading online journal of Adirondack culture, history, politics, and the environment.

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