Sedona Friends of the Forest (FOF) was recently named one of the nation’s top volunteer organization by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, for fostering volunteerism and service. The Friends have earned the newly designated Under Secretary’s Award, which qualifies FOF for the even more prestigious Secretary’s Award.

FOF was recognized for its many innovations in documenting our Native American heritage sites, removing graffiti, and using technology to support both our activities and the work of the Forest Service.

Red Rock District Ranger Nicole Branton congratulated the Friends at the Red Rock District’s annual Volunteer Appreciation Event, held on November 3rd at the Beaver Creek Work Center. She noted that is the second consecutive year that FOF has received such an award.

During fiscal year 2018, Friends volunteers donated a record 36,127 hours. Branton noted with pride that we again had a perfect safety record, with no injuries. During FY 2018, a total of 258 members contributed their time and effort, with 102 members contributing over 100 hours.

To begin the event, Friends of the Forest recognized volunteers who made notable contributions this past year.

President Manny Romero introduced committee chairs who presented certificates to major contributors in our various activities: air quality testing, cultural resources, graffiti removal, interpretive programs, river patrol, trail maintenance & construction, trail patrol, visitor information services, and water sampling.

Awards were then presented to members deserving exceptional recognition. Tom Cloonan and Brian Painchaud were presented with Volunteer of the Year Awards. In addition to serving as FOF Treasurer, Cloonan is a docent at the Palatki and V-Bar-V heritage sites. He also volunteers his time on a variety of special projects. President Romero noted that “Brian is a true leader. He’s one of our most active, versatile members”. Brian assisted with air quality monitoring, special projects, photo documentation of cultural heritage sites and the river patrol.

The Distinguished Volunteer Award was presented to Justine Kushner for her exceptional work over the years. During more than 20 years of service, Justine has contributed nearly 7,000 hours, supporting almost every activity the Friends engages in. In addition, she is a past President of Friends of the Forest.

Denise and Rob Gibbs, and Tim Anderson were recognized as New Volunteers of the Year. Denise and Rob supported FOF special projects such as peregrine falcon nest monitoring, bat acoustical monitoring, bird surveys, removal of unneeded range fencing, and the Southwest Monarch Butterfly study. Romero noted that “Denise prepared a checklist of butterflies observed in the Verde Valley and a target list of butterfly species which should be present but have not been documented”. Tim Anderson worked tirelessly in support of the group photographing and recording our cultural resources. Although relatively new to the team, he is already a key camera operator and site recording mission planner. Recent efforts of the photo documentation team have identified more than 20 sites previously unknown to the Forest Service.

The Heart of the Friends Award was presented to Jerry Checchia who “led the graffiti removal team before stepping in to his current position as leader of the trail maintenance and construction group. If anyone represents ‘heart’ to our organization, it’s Jerry,” Romero noted.

President’s Award was given to Gary Neil, who has become nationally recognized for his expertise documenting lichen and educating the public on the critical importance of this often under-valued organism. Gary initiated our annual Lichen Appreciation Week, complete with a lichen identification table and examples of our native lichen.

29 of our friends and neighbors serve on the FOF Board of Directors. This year eleven members were elected or re-elected to a three-year term: Ernie DiMillo, Ed Hodges, Peg Kern, Garry Neil, Jean Ober, Mike Ober, Terry Orlick, Deneise Piepiora, Jerry Piepiora, Manny Romero, Bob Wych. President Romero also recognized the service of our outgoing directors Elaine Julian, Mark Munsell, Betty Parker, Paul Ward, Veronica Ward, Debbie Wych.

To learn more about Friends of the Forest, and perhaps join our group of active volunteers, we invite you to our next meeting, to be held on Wednesday December 12, at 9 am in the Red Rock Ranger District Administration Building, located off of Hwy 179 a mile south of the Village of Oak Creek. We also invite you to attend our new member event to be held on Thursday February 7 at 2:00 at the Red Rock Ranger District Visitor Center. We’ll supply more information about this event in a subsequent article.

The Under Secretary’s Award that the Friends of the Forest recently earned is a tribute to the effort and innovation of Friends volunteers as they work to preserve our magnificent Red Rock Country.

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