Budget Cuts Make Rangers an Endangered Species in City Parks

Urban Park Ranger Eric Zou teaches a lesson with a hawk. | Daniel Tainow

By Reuven Blau, THE CITY

This article was originally published on by THE CITY

As calls to “defund the police” hit a fever pitch last month, the city’s Urban Park Rangers — unarmed peace officers who focus on education — suffered a far greater workforce cut than the NYPD.

The de Blasio administration decided against bringing back 50 of the city’s 95 park rangers after their year-long stints ended on June 30.

The belt-tightening move is expected to save an estimated $10 million in the city’s $88.2 billion spending plan for the fiscal year that began July 1, according to budget officials.

“You couldn’t even call it a rounding error,” said former Parks Department commissioner Adrian Benepe — an ex-ranger himself — who called the cut “tragic.”

The rangers, who make about $50,000 a year, can issue tickets. But they primarily teach park visitors about nature — leading tours and educating the public about wildlife, plants and habitats. Many are people of color.

They wear green uniforms with large-brimmed, Smokey the Bear-like hats.

Yet an image persists that rangers are quasi-cops determined to hand out costly tickets to parkgoers — even among those calling the shots about budget cuts, the leader of their union suggests.

“I’m told that they were thought to be a militant group,” said Joe Puleo, president of District Council 37 Local 983.

“They were seen as the villain,” he added. “That’s how ludicrous this has become.”

Meanwhile, the budget finalized by Mayor Bill de Blasio and the City Council at the end of June preserves nearly 300 Parks Department rules-enforcement personnel — a workforce that has quadrupled in size since 2016. And spending reductions aimed at the NYPD do not reduce the existing police force except by attrition.

Legion of Enforcers

A spokesperson for the city’s Parks Department said the city was forced to make difficult decisions due to a massive, and growing, budget deficit spurred by coronavirus pandemic shutdowns.

“We are in extraordinary times, and unfortunately some of those we were able to hire in Fiscal Year 2020… will not return,” said spokesperson Crystal Howard.

Last year, the city provisionally hired 50 Urban Park Rangers and 80 Parks Enforcement Patrol (PEP) officers as part of a Play Fair budget-boosting campaign championed by the nonprofit New Yorkers for Parks.

The PEP peace officers — who primarily enforce park regulations — were all hired into full-time positions at their same salaries for the coming fiscal year, Howard said. Since de Blasio took office, the number of PEP officers has gone from 80 in fiscal year 2016 to approximately 280 currently, according to the union.

Before the COVID-19 outbreak, there was talk of boosting the number of park rangers as well, according to Puleo.

Rangers teaching in a classroom | Jill Ann Lim.

The workforce offers free classes in the parks on birds, plant life and more. Urban Park Rangers staff pop-up tables with educational items such as fossils and animal models for children.

Rangers occasionally issue summonses to parkgoers, but that is not their primary focus and only happens as a last resort, say those who’ve done the job.

Scouting for Work

Laid-off ranger Reyna Wang, 23, who lives in Harlem, said she knew her position had been funded for just one year, but had hoped it would last longer.

She added that she might be forced to move back in with her parents in Philadelphia if she can’t get another job. New York City unemployment has soared upwards of 18% following waves of pandemic-induced layoffs.

“It’s going to be tough,” she said. “The job market isn’t great.”

Wang, like the others hired in 2019, began last September and had just started to come up with new classes based on her interactions with the public.

“We only really educate people,” she said. “Enforcement is such a small part of the ranger job.”

It was a dream job for Eric Zou, 22, who grew up going to city parks and playgrounds in Bensonhurst.

Zou, who speaks Cantonese, made it a goal along with three other multilingual colleagues to visit green spaces popular with Asians.

“We were trying to reach them,” he said. “We’d point out a hawk’s nest or engage them in a bird walk.”

When COVID-19 hit, Zou and other rangers began to give out masks and encourage social distancing. He also volunteered to work at food distribution sites across the city.

“It was a lot of fun,” he said. “We connected with volunteers from every city agency, and Sanitation, and the National Guard.”

The position doesn’t just employ young people just starting out, but also provides a springboard into parks careers, say veterans of the corps.

The job has served as a “minor league farm team” for the department, said Benepe, who began as a ranger 1979 before ascending to the top spot during the Bloomberg administration.

Many other former park rangers have become top department officials and one, Adena Long, heads the parks system in Portland, Oregon.

The ranger job was created by then-Parks Commissioner Gordon Davis in 1979, as the city began to claw its way out of the fiscal crisis, according to Benepe, who was part of the first group of rangers.

@NYCParks/Twitter An Urban Park Ranger leads an educational program.

Davis hired approximately 20 of them with money set aside for seasonal lifeguards and kept them on the payroll after the summer. That enraged the head of city’s Office of Management and Budget, according to Davis.

“He wrote a letter to the mayor saying I was fiscally irresponsible and I should be dismissed,” Davis recalled.

But Davis’ boss, Mayor Ed Koch, loved the idea because he believed it would encourage people to visit revamped parks and playgrounds.

“The city situation now is desperate,” Davis told THE CITY. “The start of the ranger program was in response to the devastating cuts from the fiscal crisis. It’s precisely in hard times when the rangers are so important. Now you need them more than ever.”

THE CITY is an independent, nonprofit news outlet dedicated to hard-hitting reporting that serves the people of New York.

NEWS, OUTDOORS | 7 comments | permalink
    1. k.s.f. says:

      NYC Park Rangers are an important part of keeping parks welcoming, safe–and accessible to all. Small kids (and big ones too including parents) ) love it when a Ranger stops to talk to them and points out birds or other urban park animals.

      Cutting the Ranger budget for NYC parks was simply a thoughtless if not dumb move. Let’s all speak up and get that reversed!

      • NYC may not know it yet, but it’s rapidly going broke. This part of the story jumped out at me:

        “Since de Blasio took office, the number of PEP officers has gone from 80 in fiscal year 2016 to approximately 280 currently, according to the union.”

        de Blasio is a tax and spender of epic proportion (my RE taxes have tripled in the last 10 years).

        Now, this is a sad story, granted. I would’ve loved to gone on a trip with them looking for birds and such, especially hawks (and thanks for the picture of that hawk as well). The workers seem like nice people.

        But please: take a look outside; restaurants are still closed, businesses are still closed and those that are open are limping; GNC just filed for bankruptcy with several stores in our area, in addition to Brooks Brothers etc. This situation is getting worse, and rapidly so; a tsunami is headed our way at several hundred miles an hour and you’re writing:

        “Let’s all speak up and get that reversed!”

        is, frankly, inappropriate… unless, of course, you’re in a position to pay their salaries yourself; in which case, I’ll applaud your laudable contribution to our city.

    2. Bonnie Rice says:


    3. Steven says:

      This is stupid, narrow minded and short sighted, like a lot of other things de Blasio has done. With all the waste in city government.

      Why on earth would the city cut funding for this extremely positive community out reach program?

      At a time when we and our children need positive role models in uniform and safety and security in our parks.

    4. Uwser says:

      Impeach The Mayor

    5. Dan Wood says:

      This is precisely the type of community outreach that would fill in as a resource resulting from defunding the NHY{D. Rangers who help keep young people occupied and interested in their community are far more important than the mayor seems to think. This should have increased funding not less.

    6. mcvb says:

      de Blah Blah Blah -sio throws money mindlessly at his concern for impoverished NYC-ers with NO limits, plans, oversight, understanding of nuances of funding, long-range goals. But when it comes to the influence of developers who fund his campaigns, he clearly stars in the Everything-is-Connected- Dept.