Thu, Dec. 05

Villager Justine Kushner receives Friends of the Forest Distinguished Volunteer Award

Friends of the Forest has been honored with the Under Secretary’s Award by the Department of Agriculture for fostering volunteerism.

The group was recognized for its many innovations in removing graffiti, using technology to support activities, and creating extensive photo documentation of cultural heritage sites in the Verde Valley. FOF is gaining national and even international recognition for these initiatives.

At the Forest Service’s recent Volunteer Appreciation event, Red Rock District Ranger Nicole Branton congratulated the Friends on receiving this prestigious award. In fact, this is the second year in a row that FOF has been recognized with a major award, having received the Forest Service Chief’s Award last year.

Branton noted that over the past year, Friends volunteers donated over 36,000 hours to the District, a new record for the group. Branton also noted that FOF yet again had a perfect safety record for the year.

To kick off the event, President of FOF and Village of Oak Creek resident Manny Romero, recognized a group of volunteers whose efforts deserved special recognition.

The Distinguished Volunteer Award was presented to new Village of Oak Creek resident Justine Kushner for her exceptional service over more than 20 years.

Justine served as a past president of the organization, and has supported almost every activity the Friends engages in.

Gary Neil, has become nationally recognized for his expertise documenting lichen and educating the public on the critical importance of lichens in the ecosystem.

Gary initiated an annual Lichen Appreciation Week. For his outstanding work in this area, Gary was given a President’s Award.

Volunteer of the Year Awards were presented to Tom Cloonan and Brian Painchaud. Cloonan volunteers his time on a variety of special projects, serves as FOF Treasurer, and is a docent at the Palatki and V-Bar-V heritage sites.

Brian Painchaud also worked on special projects, as well as air quality monitoring, photo documentation of cultural heritage sites and the river patrol.

President Manny Romero noted that “Brian is one of our most active, versatile members."

The Heart of the Friends honor was awarded to Jerry Checchia, also one of the group’s most active members.

He led the FOF graffiti removal team before assuming his current role as head of the trail maintenance and construction group. Romero noted that “if anyone represents ‘heart’ to our organization, it’s Jerry”.

Tim Anderson was recognized as New Volunteer of the Year, as were Denise and Rob Gibbs. Although relatively new to the FOF photo documentation team, Tim is already a site recording mission planner and a key camera operator. Denise and Rob Gibbs worked on numerous FOF special projects: peregrine falcon nest monitoring, bat acoustical monitoring, bird surveys, and the Southwest Monarch Butterfly study.

To learn more about Friends of the Forest, you are invited to attend their new member event to be held on Thursday, Feb. 7, 2 p.m., at the Red Rock Ranger District Visitor Center, on HWY 179 south of the Village of Oak Creek.

You can also visit their web site at where you can also learn about how the organization supports the work of the Red Rock District of the National Forest.

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