SCVN Hike the Phoneline Trail in Sabino Canyon. Photo Credit: Kenne Turner

Sabino Canyon in southern Arizona is a popular recreation site within the Coronado National Forest. The area sits at the foothills of the Santa Catalina Mountains and encompasses a diverse range of environments, including desert plants, flowing creeks, and “sky island” vegetation at the high altitude peak of Mt. Lemmon. The area attracts visitors from Tucson and surrounding areas who hike through saguaro cacti, look for signs of local bobcat and mountain lions, and challenge themselves to mountain climbs, 9,000 feet high.

The canyon also has a powerful force of volunteers, through the Sabino Canyon Volunteer Naturalists (SCVN), who serve to educate visitors, as well as K – 6 students in nearby schools. This year, the SCVN celebrates their 35th year running education programs for canyon visitors. The group started in the early 1980’s after funding for a forest service conservation education coordinator position ended, and volunteers felt the need to continue offering environmental education.

Since then, the group has trained thousands of volunteer naturalists and has led education programs for countless elementary school students.

Kenne Turner, President with SCVN explained that the volunteers are “one big family,” and that the time and energy they spend to educate visitors is their way of showing appreciation for the area, and to ensure that others appreciate it as well. “This is a dedicated group of volunteers that work out of their good will,” he said. In 2016, alone, 160 volunteer naturalists contributed 14,470 volunteer hours to the management and implementation of educational programming and stewardship, they led 7,000 students through school programs, and led an additional 5,000 visitors through public programs.

Volunteer Naturalists Commit to Rigorous Training Program

Turner explained that their group’s education success is a result of the rigorous training program they provide for their volunteers. Becoming a volunteer naturalist means committing to 15 weeks of training and roughly 12 hours per week of in-classroom and field experience, as well as required reading. “When we interview for our naturalist positions, we try to help them understand the total commitment involved. We want our volunteers to be able to go out, lead a program, and speak confidently about geology with 6th graders or explain the history of the Hohokam people to kindergarteners.”

For each K-6 program that SCVN leads, there are at least six trained naturalists so that the students receive individualized attention. They lead programs that align with core curriculum standards, and they vary the programs so that students receive an array of educational content based in culture, history and ecology.

SCVN Naturalist Becky Duncan leads Elementary Students on an interpretive program about Sabino canyon ecology. Photo Credit: Kenne Turner

SCVN Serves as a Strong Partner for the Forest Service

In addition to educational programs, SCVN leads hikes for the public and has led several awareness campaigns to help visitors understand how to use the canyon responsibly and stay safe in their activities. For example, last year, there was an incident where mountain lions were showing signs of potentially aggressive behavior to visitors nearby schoolchildren. When the Forest Service removed these animals, there was backlash from concerned citizens angry with the lions’ removal.

SCVN then stepped up and led a training program, staffed a call-in center and provided information on mountain lion ecology and safety, explained the current status of the situation, and referred callers to the appropriate resources for more detailed information. According to Heidi Schewel, Public Affairs Specialist with the U.S. Forest Service, this outreach would have been difficult without SCVN.

“We can’t say enough good things about Sabino Canyon Volunteer Naturalists,” she said. “They respond when there is a need and they help us reach the public in emergency situations.” Sarah E. Corning, Visitor Center Manager and Partnership Coordinator with the Coronado National Forest also expressed her gratitude for SCVN’s efforts:“We see them as a dedicated partner and we want to be there to support what they want to do for the area. Sometimes, that means looking for opportunities that help strengthen that work, and sometimes that means simply learning their names and giving them hugs. They are such an autonomous, self-sustaining group and have become such an asset to the area. We have a lot to be thankful for.”

To learn more about the Sabino Canyon Volunteer Naturalists, visit their website at

2017 Public Lands Alliance Partnership Award Recipient

The Public Lands Alliance awarded the Sabino Canyon Volunteer Naturalists and the Coronado National Forest the 2017 “Public Lands Partner” Partnership Award at their 2017 convention in Arlington, VA. This award recognizes an exemplary partnership for a stunning achievement to protect and preserve our public lands and enhance the experiences of their visitors and users.

This article was originally published on the Public Lands Alliance website

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