Photo of Anga Rebane, first president of Firends of Red Rock Canyon and Joel Mur of BLM.
Anga Rebane, first president of Friends of Red Rock Canyon, and Joel Mur of BLM 
review the BLM's first Cooperative Management Agreement with a friends group 
in 1984.   (Friends of Red Rock Canyon)

Leading by Example:  Volunteers and Friends Groups

By Dave Hunsaker

In 1986, after working for the BLM for 12 years, I moved from Oregon to Nevada to become the new supervisory outdoor recreation planner for the Stateline Resource Area in the Las Vegas District.  I was responsible for the wilderness, recreation, off-highway vehicle, and cultural resource programs for the resource area, and I was also the manager of Red Rock Canyon Recreation Lands (RRCRL), which is now Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area.

At the time, the Red Rock Canyon Visitor Center was open only 4 days a week, while the scenic loop drive was open all week.  It was clear that we were behind the eight ball in terms of offering the interpretive, educational, and safety services that the public was coming to expect.  With a little help from Senator Harry Reid, the budget for Red Rock Canyon was increased to allow operation 7 days a week.  The BLM also successfully completed a significant three-way land exchange with the Howard Hughes Corporation and The Nature Conservancy, which allowed for increased protection of Red Rock Canyon while accommodating the ever-expanding city of Las Vegas.

As interest in the area grew, we realized that we needed significantly more help.  This situation was not relegated solely to us in southern Nevada—public expectations, especially for quality outdoor recreational opportunities, were on the rise throughout the BLM, and the California Desert Conservation Area was right next door.  Red Rock Canyon’s chief interpreter at the time, Joel Mur, had an idea to increase the public’s involvement in managing the area. 

While the BLM had involved the public in myriad ways throughout the years, there was no established national policy regarding the use of volunteers or nonprofit organizations.  The BLM had not yet considered the formation of friends groups or other support groups.  At the time, we did have a contractual agreement with the Southwest Natural and Cultural Heritage Association for sales of interpretive materials in the Red Rock Canyon Visitor Center.  They provided inventory, furniture and shelving, and a part-time salesperson at the front desk.  What Mur and the area manager, Bill Civish, had in mind was far and away bigger than that.

In 1984, the Friends of Red Rock Canyon (FORRC) tentatively took shape.  Over the next year and a half, Civish and Mur met with a small, temporary, startup group of interested folks with varied backgrounds, including a lawyer, an accountant, and a community activist.  From that effort, the BLM’s first organized, nonprofit support group was formed (under section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code).  In 1986, we completed the agency’s first cooperative management agreement with a group organized solely to support the BLM’s mission.  Soon, thousands of hours of volunteer time, goods, and services were donated annually.

Today, FORRC members continue their commitment to preserve, protect, and enrich Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area.  The organization now does all the things that the BLM could only dream about more than 25 years ago, including removing graffiti, picking up trash, maintaining trails and the visitor center grounds, leading hikes, staffing the information desk, monitoring cultural sites, sponsoring an annual art show, and participating in community events.  In addition, the organization provides more than $100,000 annually for program support, volunteer and staff training, and supplies and equipment.

In a very real sense, the FORRC provided a roadmap for the BLM to work with others who desired personal involvement in managing public lands.  The FORRC example led to countless other successful groups, including Trail Tenders, Inc., in Baker City, Oregon (National Historic Oregon Trail Interpretive Center-Flagstaff Hill); Grand Staircase-Escalante Partners in Kanab, Utah (Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument); Friends of the Desert Mountains in Palm Desert and the Coachella Valley, California (Santa Rosa and San Jacinto Mountains National Monument); Pompeys Pillar Historical Association in Billings, Montana (Pompeys Pillar National Monument); Friends of the Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument in Ashland, Oregon (Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument); Anza Trail Coalition in Tubac, Arizona (Juan Bautista de Anza National Historic Trail); El Camino Real de Tierra Adentro Trail Association in Las Cruces, New Mexico (El Camino Real de Tierra Adentro National Historic Trail); Snake River Raptors in Boise, Idaho (Morley Nelson Snake River Birds of Prey National Conservation Area), and many others. 

Partnerships of this nature are crucial to the management of public lands and are a window into the future of public involvement.  The benefits of partnerships run both ways.  Not only do these groups and individuals provide valuable services to help the BLM accomplish its work, but these relationships provide opportunities for greater awareness, understanding, and support of the BLM and public lands and create a win-win-win scenario for the public, the BLM, and the land.

Dave Hunsaker worked in natural resource management for 41 years before retiring in 2010 as BLM’s associate state director in Colorado.  Dave was also the deputy director for the National Landscape Conservation System in the Washington Office; manager of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in Kanab, Utah; and manager of the National Historic Oregon Trail Interpretive Center–Flagstaff Hill in Baker City, Oregon.