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The story of the Red Rock Ranger District is rooted in its archaeology, which makes new district ranger Nicole Branton perfect for the job.

Nicole Branton stands at the South Gateway Visitor Center overlooking Red Rock splendor. As the new District Ranger, Branton brings her training and education in archaeology to the Red Rocks.Branton has worked as an archaeologist for the U.S. Forest Service for 14 years, including on the Coronado National Forest near Tucson while she completed her schooling at University of Arizona.

“I was raised doing applied archaeology at the same time I was studying academic archaeology,” Branton said. “So I like to say that I was raised as an archaeologist in the Forest Service.”

Branton’s career journey has taken her to Illinois, Utah, Wyoming, Arizona and New Mexico. She spent the last 12 years as an archaeologist on the Arapahoe and Roosevelt National Forests and the Pawnee Grasslands in northern Colorado, as well as an adjunct professor at Colorado State University.

She also did “details” as a Capital City Coordinator on the Fort Pierre National Grassland in South Dakota, and spent time last spring in Washington, D.C., at the National Forest Service headquarters working on the agency’s strategic plan.

Branton said that, even though she enjoys archaeology, her interests have evolved in recent years.

“I just felt that I was more interested in the bigger picture with the Forest Service, and the way that we’re relevant to local communities and the people, and managing the resources and making them available for people,” she said. “So it really makes sense for me to be here — this is really my dream job.

“It kind of pulled together, for me, a lot of different things from my career.”

Branton said she was drawn to the Red Rock Ranger District for obvious reasons — the beautiful landscape — but also because of how important it is to the community.

“I wanted to be in a place where the Forest Service really had a lot of relevancy for the community, and I think this has got to be the one for that, particularly for the city of Sedona,” she said. “I wanted to be in a recreation focused district — a place that was not strictly resource oriented, and that was a place where people were really using the forest.”

The fact that she’s an archaeologist coming to such a rich archaeological landscape is just a bonus, Branton said.

“A lot of these places are very important places to a lot of different people,” she said. “You know you’re in a special place when you have rock art — it’s been important for a long time.”

Branton said that although she’s settling into her position at the district, she doesn’t feel like it’s the kind of position where she will ever feel completely settled. And that’s a good thing.

“I think that’s just the nature of the job,” she said. “It’s good that things are always changing and you always have to stay fresh and keep in touch with people, and that you’re adapting and knowing what the issues are and how they’re impacting people.

“It’s not a sleepy district so I think it’s always going to be that way, but I enjoy that kind of dynamic work environment. I really like that there is something new every day. I never know what my day is going to be like when I come to work.”

Branton said she’s reviewed many of the current projects in the district and is most excited about projects that include the management of recreation and trying to create a sustainable recreation experience for the wide range of people — hikers, mountain bikers, climbers, equestians, off-highway vehicles, outfitters and guides — who recreate on the forest.

She is also excited about working with the Verde Front — elected officials and land managers having discussions about what’s coming next in recreation, and the potential for economic development around recreation.

“I found that to be an enjoyable experience, and an experience with a lot of potential for us doing some comprehensive planning where the pieces come together and make sense,” she said. “It gives me the opportunity to know, through those elected officials, how communities feel about these different activities that we’re planning.”

Branton said she sees the district’s greatest assets in the landscape and the fact that it is located in the Southwest and actually has water.

“I thought a lot about coming back to the Southwest, and I didn’t imagine being someplace that had this kind of scenery, this kind of desert vegetation, and water,” she said. “This brings together so many really valuable assets in terms of habitat and natural resources, but also the opportunities it brings for use by people.”

The other major asset of the district, Branton said, is the enthusiasm that people who live here have for the landscape.

“The Red Rock Ranger District has the highest number of volunteer hours of any ranger district in the Forest Service,” she said. “A lot of people have said to me, ‘You have to find out what the secret is to getting all of these volunteers!’

“But I think it’s something that wouldn’t translate easily to someplace else — it’s just people’s enthusiasm for being here in this place with the coming together of the riparian and the beautiful landscapes and the resources. It really brings something out of people and that’s just huge. That’s an enormous asset for this district.”

Branton said she sees the demand being placed on the landscape to provide the recreational opportunities that everyone enjoys so much and the capacity to manage that landscape has not grown in the Forest Service, which makes her even more grateful for the volunteers in the district.

“We had our volunteer appreciation day picnic, so I got to meet a lot of people and had the opportunity to shake a lot of hands, tell them how much we appreciate them and get a few sound bites about what folks are doing for us,” she said. “I see their role in the forest as being really critical for increasing our capacity to provide those high quality and sustainable experiences for our local communities and visitors that come from all over the world.

“I’m really flattered to get to be part of managing this landscape that brings people from all over the world. That’s what makes you feel good about being a public servant.”

For the full story, please see the Friday, Nov. 15, issue of the Camp Verde Journal.

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