From the October 2009 Conservationist
Photo: James Clayton
Adventurous careers await future Environmental Conservation Officers
By Captain Timothy Huss
ECOs with an illegally poached black
Years ago I would thumb through my dad's copies of Outdoor Life and Sports Afield, curious about the hunting and fishing stories within. My father introduced me to these outdoor pursuits at an early age, and I loved reading about other sportsmen's adventures. Inevitably, a small ad in the back of these publications would catch my eye- "Live a life in the outdoors; become a game warden." The accompanying photo of an officer holding a cougar or some other ferocious-looking game animal really thrilled me. As a young boy who spent much of his time wandering around the oak-brush plains of Long Island, and clamming on Great South Bay, I loved the thought of making a living in the outdoors.
When high school was drawing to an end, I found myself applying to colleges that offered curriculums in wildlife management, soil and water conservation, forestry, and other related topics. Four years later, upon graduating from SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry in Syracuse, I applied and took the state civil service exam for Environmental Conservation Officer (ECO).
The day I was offered an ECO position was one of the most exciting of my life. As my assigned veteran, ECO Mike Berrio, helped me complete the process of getting fingerprinted, sworn in, and outfitted with uniforms and police hardware, I realized I had little idea of exactly what an ECO did. It didn't take me long to find out that the job was a lot more complex than I imagined, and sometimes a lot more dangerous.
One of my first assignments was patrolling Long Island's marine district. I hadn't been on the job long when I found myself in a boat at night chasing illegal clammers on the waters of Great South Bay. It was pitch black, and there we were speeding after poachers. My heart was pounding, I was concerned, but excited at the same time. I loved what I was doing, and felt like I was doing something meaningful-protecting the environment and its natural resources.
An ECO check the licenses of two hunters.
Over the next few years I discovered just how varied the job could be. My work on Long Island exposed me to a range of issues, including protecting endangered species, enforcing hunting and fishing regulations, protecting wetlands, enforcing air and water quality regulations and proper pesticide practices, and doing some basic police work. I never really knew what each day would bring. One day I would be checking duck hunters along Long Island's shoreline and the next I'd be investigating the unlawful disposal of a regulated waste, or the unregulated filling of a protected wetland. For me, that diversity made the job more interesting and rewarding.
An ECO checking emissions on a truck
Talking to fellow ECOs around the state made me aware of the diverse natural history, and social and political dynamics found in New York State, as well as the variety of other duties being performed by my colleagues. For instance, ECOs in rural areas of upstate are most often involved in fish, wildlife, and other natural resource issues, from nuisance bears to timber theft. In contrast, ECOs in New York City are more likely to be involved in air and water quality issues, perhaps checking emissions on diesel trucks, or enforcing laws regulating solid waste. On the other hand, these same ECOs may also find themselves involved in stopping the illegal trade of protected endangered species in exotic markets.
Sometimes, work and patrol areas overlap and ECOs from various regions of the state work together on a case. Perhaps it's illegal clams and other marine species that show up in upstate markets, or illegally taken bears from upstate that show up at a taxidermist on Long Island. Such cooperation illustrates the camaraderie among ECOs-we are a single group working together toward a common goal.
Occasionally ECOs are called on to lend a hand in work that is seemingly outside their duties. In World War II, for example, ECOs assisted the FBI in a number of tasks-from investigating mysterious parachute landings to rounding up saboteurs. And in 1980, ECOs assisted with security at the XIII Olympic Winter Games held in Lake Placid. More recently, ECOs have aided with emergency operations associated with TWA Flight 800, the 1995 wildfires on Long Island, and the tragic events of 9/11. Since 9/11, officers are more often tasked to assist fellow law enforcement agencies in homeland security efforts.
Being an ECO allows me to be part of a proud heritage that dates back more than 125 years. Initially called Game Protectors, in 1880 Governor Alonzo B. Cornell appointed the first eight men to the job. While the original focus was game protection, primarily via catching poachers, these first officers also enforced laws protecting streams from pollution, and were authorized to bring legal action against all violators. Over the years, more environmental duties were added, and in the 1960s the job title changed to Conservation Officer. In 1970, the then Conservation Department merged with facets of the State Health Department to form the current Department of Environmental Conservation. At that time, the role of the Conservation Officer changed dramatically and the job title became Environmental Conservation Officer. At the same time, ECOs were also given broader powers, and their legal status was modified from peace officers to fully empowered police officers.
Today's conservation officers continue their predecessors' mission to protect New York State's resources and environment with the same dedication and passion. It takes hard work to become an Environmental Conservation Officer, but in return, you will find yourself in a fascinating and rewarding career. I'm proud to be an ECO and it's something I've enjoyed for many years.
Captain Timothy Huss is the chief ECO on Long Island. He has served with DEC since 1977.