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The ECO's Proud History

The end of the 19th century was not a good time for fish and wildlife in America. Unregulated market hunting and habitat destruction had nearly exterminated many wildlife species. Moose had disappeared from the NY landscape. White-tailed deer were at their lowest historical numbers and wild turkeys were a rarity. Unfortunate species such as the eastern elk and heath hen were completely wiped out of existence.

Many hills and mountains stood barren of standing timber, which had been cut for lumber and paper. Resulting runoff choked many once pristine trout waters. Acids from tanning factories and pollutants from paper mills only exacerbated the problem. In short, the country's natural resources were in serious trouble, and New York was leading the charge.

An ECO and his dog set up camp in the snowy woodland

Citizens familiar with the outdoors (primarily hunters, anglers, trappers, and foresters) became alarmed over these conditions, giving rise to the conservation movement. Influential men like Theodore Roosevelt and Gifford Pinchot gave this cause national momentum, resulting in legislation to criminalize and regulate past practices. These laws were useless without men to enforce them; hence the Game Protector profession was born.

In 1880, the first 8 Fish & Game Protectors were appointed by Governor Alonzo B. Cornell. These men were granted authority to enforce laws to protect deer, birds, and fish, and to bring legal action against those who chose to violate those laws. They could arrest without a warrant and seize evidence. A total annual budget of $6,000 supported the $500 annual salaries and expense accounts for these men, who were expected to patrol the entire state.

The Environmental Conservation Officer title, in the various forms of its evolution over the decades, is the oldest statewide enforcement job in New York State. Until the formation of the New York State Police 37 years later, Game Protectors were the only lawmen employed by the State. In New York's most rural communities, they were very often the only officers with which citizens had regular contact.

In the 1960s, people became concerned with widespread pollution of our land, air and water, and the environmental movement took hold. In 1964, the title of Game Protector was changed to Conservation Officer. The first Earth Day was held in 1970, and called national attention to environmental issues. This increased environmental awareness affected state policies and organizations, including the Conservation Department, which became the Department of Environmental Conservation that same year. DEC's Bureau of Law Enforcement now had the additional responsibility of enforcing many existing public health and agricultural laws, including those relating to; solid waste, petroleum products, air emissions, industrial chemical disposal, pesticides, and wetlands protection. In 1971, the Bureau became the Division of Law Enforcement, and legislation upgraded the newly named Environmental Conservation Officer from peace officer to police officer status with authority to enforce all NYS laws. This was the beginning of many dramatic changes.

Today's Environmental Conservation Officers still maintain the values and work ethic of their dedicated predecessors, the Game Protectors. By working day and night for a mission in which they believed and to which they were committed, Game Protectors provided the standard for today's ECOs. Many of the old traditions from the last century are still with us: the uniforms are still green; the fervor to protect the environment is still strong; and there are still places in New York State where ECOs are the only law enforcement officers that anyone is likely to encounter. Despite 135 years of evolution, the Division of Law Enforcement's mission statement could have been written by those first eight men: "To protect the environment, natural resources and people of the State of New York through law enforcement, education and public outreach."


More about The ECO's Proud History:

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