National Forest Foundation volunteer day
(Photo/Kendra Smith Photography)

Play Hooky, Get Dirty, Do Good: Volunteer With the National Forest Foundation

The National Forest Foundation lives outside many of the government restrictions and slow-moving protocols the U.S. Forest Service has to navigate. Because of that, it offers more ways for you to participate in improving, rehabilitating, and giving back to many of America’s great public lands.

My eyes patrolled the desert landscape, relentlessly scanning ahead of every footstep for a hint of any “s” words (skittering, scuttling, stinging) — anything that could signal the big “s,” a scorpion.

“The Bush Fire burned almost 200,000 acres. It was one of Arizona’s largest fires ever,” Rebecca Davidson, director of the National Forest Foundation’s Southern Rockies region, said to me and a few assembled media and volunteers.

That struck me as an odd thing to say. I looked up slowly from my miniature scorpion scavenger hunt.

“A wildfire? In the desert?” I asked. I looked out across the yellow-brown hardpan. Living in Colorado for the last 3 years, I’d become accustomed to the endless scroll of wildfire news. But out here, what was there to burn?

“Yes, well that’s largely because of all the invasive species,” she said matter-of-factly. Davidson, my tour guide for the day, pointed to a tuft of pale yellow-green vegetation. There were hundreds of similar little patches dotting the desert. “Buffelgrass — this is not native. It spreads because of all the tourism traffic.”

saguaro cactus
(Photo/Kendra Smith Photography)

Despite her knowledge, Davidson actually wasn’t here to give me a tutorial on the desert ecosystem or the plights facing it. There were dozens of green khaki-clad U.S. Forest Service (USFS) rangers to do that.

She was here to help me understand what exactly the National Forest Foundation (NFF) does. And that meant I was going to get my hands dirty along with a crew of everyday folks in Tonto National Forest, less than an hour north of Phoenix, to help restore habitat in the wake of the Bush Fire.

It turns out, there’s a lot of good you — yes, you — can do to help protect and restore public lands. And while navigating any government agency — USFS, Bureau of Land Management, and others — can be mind-numbing and arduous, organizations like the NFF offer up easier avenues for you to do your part.

Here’s a rundown of how you can get involved, what a volunteer opportunity looks like, and why the NFF’s work is so important.

Burning the Desert

Davidson was right. Thanks to a perfect storm of climate change-related drought and the pandemic-induced boom in tourism (and the invasive species carried on all those shoes and tires), the 2020 Bush Fire was able to destroy more than 190,000 acres, going down as Arizona’s fifth-largest wildfire. And the Tonto National Forest suffered the brunt of casualties.

girdled saguaro cactus
(Photo/Kendra Smith Photography)

No trees take root in the Tonto’s extreme climes — the forest averages just 6 inches of rain per year — but giants still grow. The iconic, cartoon profile of the saguaro cactus stands sentinel over the dusty yellow expanse. But where you’d usually see rich green trunks and arms, many are yellow or black.

As wildfires sweep across all the low-growing buffelgrass, the flames scorch and girdle the giant cactuses. This kills some saguaro outright, and others are left doomed to wither and fall within a few years.

In total, officials expect the fires will impact more than 80,000 saguaro cactuses.

It’s a devastating fate for the habitat and a discouraging scene for anyone who gives a damn about America’s unique wildlife. But it’s also why organizations like the NFF exist. The volunteer effort I participated in brought together dozens of everyday citizens, USFS staff, and private businesses.

What Is the National Forest Foundation?

Say you want to give money to support some public lands or sign up to get your hands dirty helping with trail work or habitat restoration. The USFS is like a mom — there are strict rules. Every penny has to be accounted for, every event has to be very carefully planned and work documented. As a government agency, the USFS just isn’t that nimble; it’s beholden to bureaucracy and the slow-moving machinations of public office.

But the NFF is like the cool aunt. Rules are a little laxer, and generally speaking, it’s easier and more fun working through it. The NFF is a nonprofit that receives money from Congress but can also engage the private sector to add some octane to initiatives that — in its own words — help benefit “the health and public enjoyment of the 193 million acre National Forest System.”

Volunteer days like the one I was on occur at various times throughout the year on an as-needed basis. But the NFF also collects donations for those who want a simple, effective, and trustworthy way to benefit public lands. Straddling the line between the public and private sectors, the NFF prides itself on knowing how to work the system.

Plus, it works both ways: While it’s a great resource for the public, the NFF is also the best friend of the Forest Service and can act quickly when the USFS requests or needs help.

Volunteering With the NFF: How It Works

Because the Bush Fire swept across the Four Peak Wilderness Area within the Tonto National Forest, the NFF tapped the eponymous — and very popular — Four Peaks Brewing to help spur a volunteer event.

To start, Four Peaks donated cash directly to the NFF. But it also had the private sector chutzpah (and social following) to rally volunteers, promote the replantation effort, and help shoulder the burden of logistics and organization.

Now an annual event — a push to spread native grass seed and replant clones of ill-fated saguaros — this year marked the second team-up for the NFF, Four Peaks Brewing, and the USFS. The first event, held last year, managed to replant more than 400 native plants, including 73 saguaros.

If you like learning, doing good, swinging a shovel, and meeting other folks who appreciate public lands, volunteering with an NFF effort is a gas. Forest Service rangers are on hand to help direct and educate. Did we mention free T-shirts?

In our case, the NFF provided tools, along with a brief orientation on the what, why, and how of replanting. Depending on the number of volunteers, you will likely be divided into a small group with a group leader (these are the ones authorized to use the heavy-duty machinery).

volunteer cactus planting national forest foundation
(Photo/Kendra Smith Photography)

Don’t worry — you don’t have to have any special experience to help out. If you can show up, you can do some good. And no one is out of their comfort zone.

Best of all, both NFF staff and USFS rangers are friendly, appreciative, and on-hand to answer any questions, like “Are there any scorpions?” “How big are the scorpions?” “What do I do if I see a scorpion?” Or anything else you’d like to know.

Get Involved

If you’re particularly interested in learning more about the efforts in and around Tonto National Forest, check out the Northern Arizona Forest Fund.

The NFF hosts all manner of volunteer programs throughout the year, so you can take part in something close to home. Check out the NFF’s six regional programs to find an event near you.

Finally, if you’re ready (and antsy) and want to do something now — plus make it happen before the tax year ends — you can donate to the NFF. Any and all gifts help and are tax-deductible.

Adam Ruggiero

Adam Ruggiero is the editor-in-chief of GearJunkie and a fan of virtually all sports and activities. From biking, running, and (not enough) surfing, to ball sports, camping, and cattle farming — if it's outside, it's worth doing. Adam graduated from the University of Minnesota with a BA in journalism. Likes: unique beer, dogs, stories. Like nots: neckties, escalators, manicured lawns.