They are the men and women who greet hikers at the start of Humphreys Trail, making sure they know the weather forecast and the supplies necessary to make the nearly 10-mile trip.
They are the workers building fences to protect sensitive aspen groves on the Coconino National Forest.
And they are the people who conveniently issue backcountry permits to hikers and skiers at Arizona Snowbowl on winter weekends.
All are volunteers and the common thread among them is their membership in the Friends of Northern Arizona Forests, or FoNAF. The 8-year-old organization works in partnership with the Coconino National Forest to accomplish work that the staff-and-budget-limited Forest Service doesn’t have the time or resources to do on its own. In 2017 alone, FoNAF contributed more than 4,200 volunteer hours to Forest Service tasks.
For its dedication to this Forest Service support role, Friends of Northern Arizona Forests was chosen as the 2017 Arizona Daily Sun’s Organization of the Year.
The volunteer group’s core focus is on building and maintaining exclosure fences around aspen stands in forests around the Flagstaff area. The 8-foot tall fences are designed to keep elk, deer and cattle from munching on young aspen, which prevents regeneration.
“FoNAF will be the reason tourists visiting the Flagstaff area will be able to see aspen in the forest now and into the future,” Dick Fleishman, a Forest Service coordinator on the Four Forest Restoration Initiative, wrote in a letter of support for the organization.
When it started in 2009, the organization spent nearly all of its time repairing aspen exclosure fences on the Flagstaff Ranger District, said Dave Downes, the group’s treasurer. There are more than 60 exclosures on the district, and it took four or five years to repair and reconstruct the ones that had fallen into disrepair, he said. Now, each of the 20 or so members of FoNAF's aspen team is responsible for checking on a few exclosures each spring and reporting repairs that need to be made.
With that project mostly under control, the group has expanded to more projects on the Coconino as well as the Kaibab National Forest next door. In addition to building new aspen exclosures, volunteers modify old cattle fences to allow pronghorns to pass underneath and build fences to protect wet meadows, riparian areas and archaeological sites in the forest.
Over this year and last year, FoNAF volunteers stabilized the historic cabin near Big Leroux Spring and removed about half a ton of old wire and metal around Big and Little Leroux Springs, which made a marked environmental improvement, said Bruce Belman, the group’s vice president.
Another of FoNAF's tasks involved rebuilding a wildlife watering tank north of the San Francisco Peaks using an improved engineering design. The Forest Service has about 150 of the water tanks across the Flagstaff Ranger District, but the logging money set aside to construct the tanks didn’t account for continued operations and maintenance, so many have fallen into disrepair, said Tom Mackin, the group’s president. The tank rebuild by FoNAF volunteers has been a success, though, remaining at least 85 percent full of water while in years past it wasn’t more than 30 percent to 40 percent full, Mackin said.
In winter, a couple of the friends group's volunteers issue backcountry permits at Arizona Snowbowl’s Agassiz Lodge. The permits are required for people who ski, snowboard, snowshoe or alpine climb into the Kachina Peaks Wilderness outside of Arizona Snowbowl.
FoNAF’s newest initiative is a preventive search and rescue program that involves sending volunteers to the Humphreys trailhead every Friday, Saturday and Sunday from Memorial Day through Labor Day. The volunteers talk to hikers about the weather forecast and lightning awareness, give alternative trail suggestions and provide information about proper gear, how much food and water to bring for the hike and the signs of altitude sickness.
With more than 10,000 visitor contacts per year, the program has had the highest contact numbers of any program on the Coconino and contributed to declines in rescues and injuries on the mountain, Mackin said.
The group works with the Forest Service on everything it does. Every January, FoNAF members sit down with agency staff and hear about projects that could use volunteer assistance, then decide which they might have capacity to do. More recently, FoNAF has started suggesting its own projects on the forest as well.
The friends group is a special asset to the Forest Service, Flagstaff Ranger District wildlife biologist Cary Thompson wrote in support of the group’s nomination.
“We have many partners and volunteers that help us accomplish our mission but FoNAF is unique in that they are a long-term partner. They have a consistent member base with the required Forest Service training and are well versed in our culture,” Thompson wrote. “They have an understanding of our challenges yet focus on solutions.”
The group has 43 members and they are always looking for new volunteers, Downes said.
The organization provides an opportunity to get outdoors and do work that produces tangible results on the forest, said Bob Dyer, FoNAF’s secretary.
Mackin echoed those thoughts.
“It’s very easy to see the problems with a lot of public lands and personally I view FoNAF as an opportunity to be part of the solution to correct those problems,” Mackin said.
Their volunteer projects may not be flashy, but they matter quite a bit to people passionate about pronghorns, for example, or visitors interested in the area’s aspen trees, Belman said.
“We've become a tremendous multiplier for Forest Service efforts,” he said.