When I was young, my hero was Jacques Cousteau, and I dreamed of working as an oceanographer, advancing science and traveling the world. While I didn’t follow that path in life, my interest in science has remained. I suspect many of you reading this column can share a similar story.

The citizen science movement, and the volunteer organizations available here in the Verde Valley, provide us with a host of opportunities to contribute to important research while enjoying the outdoors in the company of fellow volunteers.

It’s generally thought that the citizen science movement began with the Audubon Society’s Christmas bird count that has been continuously held since 1900. More recently, scores of opportunities have been made available to volunteers, ranging from Project BudBurst that uses citizen scientists to observe how plants in your community change with the seasons, to Globe at Night where observers around the country measure night time light pollution.

Closer to home, Janie Agyagos, Wildlife Biologist for the Red Rock District of the National Forest Service, manages projects that you can become directly involved in. Her duties include inventorying and monitoring special status plant, fish and wildlife species, designing and implementing habitat improvement projects, managing area closures for the protection of rare fish, wildlife and plant species and/or their habitat, and conducting project effect analyses and consultations.

Her current list of approximately 30 initiatives includes peregrine nest monitoring, North American bat acoustical monitoring, a roadside weed inventory, Arizona toad surveys, Johnson grass control, pollinator photography, removal of unneeded range fencing, and many others. Our Red Rock Ranger District is somewhat unique in that we do not have timber-based funding that covers the salaries of seasonal biologists. Thus, Janie is not able to call on Forest Service employees to staff these projects.

Enter Friends of the Forest volunteers. In 2017, over 50 volunteers provided hundreds of hours of labor so that these important inventory, monitoring, and maintenance projects could be completed. The sheer number of volunteers allows more projects to be conducted with more sites continually monitored. The knowledge gained has increased our understanding of the state of the local environment and the status of local wildlife populations. The work accomplished has improved the habitat of threatened species.

Each year, the list of projects changes, as some long-term or one-time projects are completed, and others are begun. At any time, there is a broad range of initiatives that volunteers are involved in. These range from extremely easy to quite strenuous, and vary in duration from a couple of days to year-long. Whether your skills and interests include photography, construction, weed removal, wildlife monitoring, hiking, or 4×4 driving, there are projects that may appeal to you.

While anyone can participate, most of these projects are staffed by volunteers from Friends of the Forest (FOF). All it takes is membership in FOF, an interest in the project, and a commitment of time and effort. Janie trains all volunteers, monitors progress, and documents and reports on the results.

Those who volunteer find the experience particularly rewarding.

“Recently Janie sent out a request for volunteers to assist with a monitoring project for Arizona toads, where volunteers would go out weekly to five or six different designated sites for two months to listen for toad mating calls,” said Mike Ward, longtime resident and former Friends of the Forest president. “Who would be enthused enough to volunteer to listen for toad croaks an hour after sundown? I was not surprised that she attracted over 20 volunteers at her training session. I have monitored peregrine falcons for her for 15 years on Cathedral Rock, counted bats as they leave their roosts after sun down, worked on Leopard frog habitat projects, traveled along roads and highways on the district to GPS invasive weed encroachments, and now I am going out to listen for croaking toads. Janie’s passion for what she does is infectious to those who volunteer for her.”

If you would like to volunteer for one or more of her current projects, you can contact Janie Agyagos at jagyagos@fs.fed.us or by calling her at (928) 203-7507. You can become a FOF member and learn more about the current projects by visiting the Friends of the Forest web site, https://www.friendsoftheforestsedona.org.
In an upcoming article, Friends of the Forest member Jennifer Young will write about her experience volunteering on the Arizona Toad Survey project.

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