Sedona is a fragile place, but that’s exactly how it became so beautiful. Over the eons our sandstone was fractured, lifted, and eroded, creating this jewel we treasure. But that fragility can work against beauty. With people enjoying Sedona in growing numbers, the sum of the human forces reducing the beauty is stronger than the natural forces that created it.

Rebalancing those forces back to a sustainable future requires substantial maintenance effort as well as rethinking of how best to preserve the forest. The Forest Service bears this role with its many partners. Sedona Friends of the Forest volunteers support the effort by making observations of problems on trails and by sampling the water and air. We also perform maintenance work including trail work, graffiti removal, and fixing trail signs. However, there is no doubt that increased recreational use has increased the burden of managing all the work.

How can we find and document the problems, tell whether we’re doing enough maintenance, and work more efficiently? To be sure, the physical work of patrolling, sampling, and maintenance cannot easily be streamlined. But many elements of the work processes can: how we acquire data, analyze changes over time, track work status and assign maintenance work. But volunteers don’t want the paperwork and they don’t want to become slaves to their computers. We’re enjoying the outdoors having fun, like volunteers should. This dilemma hatched a novel idea – let’s put reporting and management of these work processes into our hands by using mobile apps.

Mobile phones are powerful tools for communication – calling, texting, tweeting, accessing the news and weather.  But there are other features that can amplify a phone’s power to streamline work in the field, for example: GPS location, mapping, image capture, notification, offline use and wireless data transfer to a database. We now have help to harness these features: the revolution taking place in mobile app development. Instead of depending on complex custom programming, there is a rapid switch to MADP – Mobile App Development Platforms. As spreadsheets revolutionized desktop computing in the 1970s, MADP is revolutionizing mobile app development today.

How was this technology applied to streamline our unique work processes?  First experts who do the work sat down to document existing work processes, especially those causing the biggest headaches. We then brainstormed ideas to streamline the processes. Next prototype apps were developed and field tested. Having gained confidence, more ambitious functionality was developed to address the thorniest issues. How to ensure an observation contains sufficient and precise information so repairs can be completed in one outing. eliminating the need for lengthy scouting expeditions? How to simplify entries on the trail? Who wants to type on a tiny screen darkened by sunglasses while the sun is beating down? How to create a navigation function for maintenance crews hiking trails, so they can be guided to the observations?

The result is two separate apps that have been in use by Friends of the Forest over a year: Report app for making observations and Manage app for managing repairs. Managers also use the Dashboard to analyze the entire data history with powerful tools for querying the database to create reports, maps, and charts.

Over the last year nearly 1000 problems were reported with the mobile app including trail work, graffiti, signage, trailheads, and motorized trails. 80% of trail issues were remedied including general repairs, tree removal, drainage, brushing, and closing trails that were not part of the Forest Service trail network. 83% of trail sign problems were fixed and 98% of the graffiti was removed.

Despite all these accomplishments, new problems are constantly being discovered causing the backlog of work to increase. Patrolling and finding all the problems present a challenge considering the number of trails, high trail use, and problematic weather conditions. Data from the mobile apps helps bring to light the timing and location of hotspot areas and offers the opportunity for volunteers to patrol these areas more frequently.

Friends of the Forest has a long history innovation.  In 2017 we were selected by the Forest Service as the best volunteer organization in the country. We volunteer more hours than any other Forest Service volunteer group.  Now the Friends are using mobile apps to help accomplish Forest Service goals.

If you are new to the area or would just like to learn more about our group and the volunteer opportunities available, we invite you to attend our new member welcome event to be held at 2:00 pm on Thursday February 7 at the Red Rock Ranger District Visitor Center.  The Visitor Center is located on Highway 179 just south of the Village of Oak Creek.

Serving Sedona, written this week by Bob Haizmann of Sedona Friends of the Forest, appears Wednesday in the Sedona Red Rock News.