From its very earliest days, women volunteers have been front, center and out to the far reaches of the Sedona Friends of the Forest (FOF) organization.  As leaders, innovators, or by just plain showing up to get a job done, FOF women have contributed daily to supporting the Red Rock District forest lands, wildlife and visitors.

Mary Lee Dunning set the stage as the founding President of the organization in 1994.  She has been followed by many other women as FOF officers, work team or project leaders, and skilled administrative volunteers.   On the USDA Forest Service side, women in key positions in the Agency have been supervisors and mentors for FOF volunteers, including some who have worked continuously on the District for twenty-five years.

Through the twenty years for which data is available, Friends women have logged over 150,000 hours of volunteer service, accounting for one of every three hours of FOF work.  They are active in all eleven of the Friends work teams, known as Committees, and currently lead three of these teams.  Trail Patrol, Visitor Information Services and Cultural Site Docent duty are particularly popular, accounting for almost 70% of this year’s women volunteer hours to date.  And Friends women can be found working on Trail Maintenance crews, scrubbing graffiti off our red rocks, driving bumpy Forest roads for Air Quality Monitoring or River Ranger Support, and hiking to remote areas for a variety of wildlife and rare plant projects.

Behind the statistics are women like Justine Kusner, Darl Rector and Jean Ober who have logged a mere 14,000 hours of service collectively during their years with the Friends.  On the occasion of the Friends 20th anniversary, Justine, who served as FOF President in 1999 and 2000, wrote about what attracted her and husband Bill to the Friends: “It was the phrase ‘Let’s Get Physical’.  Less talk, more work.  That’s our kind of group.”

Darl Rector has devoted so much time to patrolling and maintaining our area trails for twenty-four years together with husband Gene, that the Forest Service recently named a trail for the volunteer couple.  The Rector Connector is located between Bell Rock and Courthouse Butte.  Darl says, “The best thing that happened to Gene and I in retirement was finding and joining FOF.  We have made so many wonderful friends and enjoyed a variety of activities. To me, working in the beauty of the red rocks was much like being in a huge outdoor cathedral.  Having a trail named for us has to be the ultimate honor!  I am thrilled to still be able to hike and spend time with some great gals on the trails.”

Jean Ober is surely a Renaissance FOF volunteer, having brought her talent and energy to nearly every one of the diverse activities of the organization, including serving on the Board and as Newsletter Editor.  “The name of our organization “Friends” truly reflects what it is like for me to work with others on the many Committees we have.  On trail maintenance, no one is expected to work beyond their capability and I can trim cat claw and branches off the trails, use a McLeod tool to clean drains and reshape trails, plant native cacti to revegetate areas as well as help build rock structures working along-side other ladies and gentlemen of the crew.  Comradery and a sense of a job well done are rewards along with the many Friends I have made.  These friendships continue to grow as I have expanded to more activities within the organization,” Jean says.

Preparing this article has reinforced my experience of Friends of the Forest as an organization culture where gender is not of consequence.  What a delight!  In fact, some women I spoke to about the topic of women in the organization expressed surprise that this would be a topic to write about.  I have enjoyed this non-topic nonetheless.   My congratulations to the many women volunteering across twenty-five years on the Red Rock District of the National Forest.

And, yes, a few batches of cookies and banana bread have been prepared through the years to sustain those attending FOF quarterly membership meetings.  Visitors, curious women and men, are welcome to attend these meetings to learn more about the organization.  The next opportunity is Wednesday September 11 at 9:00am in the Red Rock District Administration Building, adjacent to the Visitor Center, on highway 179 one mile south of the Village of Oak Creek.   Or visit our website