By D.J. DeJong
The Mountain Mail
The Greater Arkansas River Nature Association has been a force in the Upper Arkansas Valley for 25 years and will celebrate the milestone at a sold-out birthday bash Sunday.
The organization was the brainchild of Steve Reese, the first Colorado State Parks manager of Arkansas Headwaters Recreation Area.
Current board member J.W. Wilder was the first river ranger hired by AHRA in 1989 and worked with Reese.
Wilder said Reese had the idea of creating GARNA in 1995.
At that point Wilder was a full-time ranger law enforcement officer with Colorado State Parks.
“About 12 percent of our time was supposed to be dedicated to interpretation and education. With the kind of hours we were putting in trying to get the park going and establishing everything, we didn’t have time to do that,” Wilder said.
Reese came up with the idea of creating a nonprofit that would focus on education and stewardship.
“He passed the torch to Kathryn Wadsworth, who became the first director and creator,” Wilder said
“I remember that I had a few educational things I really enjoyed just prior to that,” Wilder said. River safety lessons included demonstrations to explain hypothermia and why wearing a personal flotation device was important.
Wilder spent 16 years with AHRA and retired from state parks 11 years ago. He was later approached about being on the GARNA board.
He wants to ensure the educational and stewardship aspects continue and said he is glad sustainability has been added.
Wilder said GARNA has probably been one of the more successful nonprofits in the valley over its 25 years with its focus on educating youth and getting them outdoors.
“In my personal opinion if you can reach youth you can change actions of human beings down the road and into the future,” he said.
Wilder said Dominique Naccarato, GARNA’s current director, attended some of those early GARNA classes when she was a student.
“So it’s going around full circle,” he said.
GARNA is a cooperating association, an official term recognized through natural resource agencies such as Colorado State Parks, U.S. Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management and Division of Wildlife. (Colorado State Parks and Division of Wildlife later merged into Colorado Parks and Wildlife.)
Upon development of the AHRA, it was recognized early on that it would benefit by having a formal cooperating association that allows for assistance through volunteerism and funding to flow both ways.
“So GARNA could write a grant and provide grant assistance and volunteers under that, to help the natural resource agencies and projects that they were working on and vice versa,” Wadsworth said.
Cooperating associations have been around for a long time, Wadsworth said.
Recognizing the benefits, early managers of AHRA like Reese and Charlie Medina came together and started GARNA.
Initially they worked with a woman in Denver to do the paperwork: articles of incorporation, bylaws, establishment of the organization and writing the 501(c)(3) paperwork to receive that nonprofit designation.
“When I came on board as the first formal executive director, I was the only staff person. They had $600 in the budget and a cardboard box, and that’s what I started with,” she said.
For the first 10 years GARNA was building relationships, working with all the agencies and pulling in counties from Leadville to Pueblo.
Wadsworth said the most rewarding thing about the organization was bringing together citizens, old and new to the area, to work on projects in education, literature and interpretive signs, all focused on natural, cultural and historical resources for the Arkansas River area.
The biggest challenge was continually seeking funding to support all the programs and staff that was desperately needed.
“For the first 10 years I was the only staff person. Everyone else was volunteer. I’m thrilled that GARNA has grown over the 25 years, under Alison Ramsey and now Dominique Naccarato. They’ve continued to grow that organization and are able to receive the ongoing funding needed to actually fund staff people so they can continue the important work they’re doing,” Wadsworth said.
Among the many projects GARNA has undertaken over its history are interpretive signs throughout the AHRA, establishment of Chaffee County as a Heritage Area, establishment of the Collegiate Peaks Scenic and Historic Byway and the Salida Community Garden.
Early GARNA member Gail Bindner, who originally came to the area as a ski patroller at Monarch Mountain, said her interest has long been in the community garden and making signs. She also designed the first GARNA logo.
“Everybody that comes in works really hard,” she said.