In the autumn of 2012, recent retirees Roberta Stockman and Kurt Starbuck were making their way westward from Chicago with the intention to settle in California. They made a stop in Sedona. As avid hikers and outdoor explorers, they were drawn to the Red Rock Ranger District Visitor Center south of VOC seeking information about recreation opportunities. There they saw an exhibit featuring the work of local volunteer group Friends of the Forest (FOF) and spoke with Friends volunteers working at the Center . “This was exactly what we were looking for,” recalls Roberta, “an opportunity for active involvement in maintaining and preserving an extraordinary landscape, while enjoying all that the National Forest has to offer.”

Within a matter of days, the couple decided to settle in the area and immediately joined Friends of the Forest. Over the next six years, Roberta and Kurt have supported a wide range of FOF activities. Kurt has been a stalwart contributor to the Trail Maintenance and Construction group and as well as graffiti remediation efforts. Roberta volunteered for a rotation as Coordinator of Trail Patrol, an activity that engages the greatest number of FOF volunteers. The couple has volunteered together on projects related to archaeology site documentation and wildlife monitoring. More than a few new friendships have formed along the way.

Like Roberta and Kurt, the urge to help preserve the National Forest wonderland that surrounds us drew 74 new members to Friends of the Forest in 2017. The group now totals 510 members, including 290 lifetime members.

Would you like to learn how you can get involved? Join us for a presentation and social gathering on Thursday February 15 at 2:00 pm. The annual Friends of the Forest Welcome Event will be held at the Red Rock Ranger District Visitor Center located on Highway 179, one mile south of the Village of Oak Creek. New members, prospective members and simply curious folk will enjoy presentations from Friends team leaders, meet Forest Service personnel and socialize with other Friends volunteers.

Through ongoing partnership with the Red Rock Ranger District of the Coconino National Forest, Friends volunteers continue to fill the gap between the many needs of the Forest and its visitors and the limited District resources. New volunteers are always welcome to help in the core FOF activities, which include Visitor Information Services volunteers assisting at the Visitor Center, Cultural Resources docents at Palatki and other heritage sites, Trail Patrol members hiking area trails with assistance or information for other hikers, and the hardworking men and women on Trail Construction and Maintenance crews.

In recent years, the scope of Friends of the Forest activity has expanded significantly into new areas of emphasis and support such as graffiti remediation, public education programs and guided hikes, photo documentation of archaeological sites, and maintenance of a wilderness air quality monitoring station.

A fast growing category of volunteer interest and participation might be described as “Citizen Science”. Red Rock Ranger District Wildlife Biologist Janie Agyagos is one of several Forest Service specialists who are engaging Friends volunteer citizen scientists in a variety of research activities: locating and documenting ancient agaves, cataloging lichens, monitoring peregrine falcon nests, counting bats exiting their roosts, identifying and inventorying the Arizona Toad, and surveying invasive weeds.

Last year FOF implemented new software tools which help to track individual member interests, skills and areas of volunteer participation. Within the growing organization, these tools enable FOF team leaders to easily connect volunteers with their passions. We are streamlining our administrative tasks in order to devote maximum focus, time and energy to work on the National Forest. That said, leadership, administrative and technical tasks are another realm where volunteers can contribute: website design and maintenance, treasury functions, publicity, and even software development. Volunteer-developed smart phone apps and data bases are in use by FOF volunteers and Forest Service personnel for reporting and tracking of Forest conditions – an example of volunteer skills applied to Forest management needs.

Friends of the Forest is truly a place to contribute most any skill or pursue wide-ranging interests. There is something for everyone, whether you wish to be inside or outside, work solo or with others, be comfortable with a no-sweat task or burn a lot of calories. There will no doubt be something new happening on the Red Rock Ranger District by the Welcome Event date. If you wish to help protect the beautiful National Forest we are privileged to call home, please join us on February 15 at 2:00pm to learn more.

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