“For many years, we were the best-kept secret people didn’t know about,” says Tammy Martin, Executive Director of Friends of the Desert Mountains. “But that has changed a lot in the last few years. Many people are getting to know who we are and really appreciate the work we do in the environment.”

There’s a lot to appreciate, in fact.

Friends of the Desert Mountains, celebrating its 35th anniversary this year, aims to preserve land, support education, conservation, and research throughout Coachella Valley.

Think of it as a desert lighthouse of sorts, as it also provides support for the Santa Rosa and San Jacinto Mountains National Monument.

But building a community of support to help preserve the area’s unique wildlife and scenic beauty can be a heavy lift. Martin, whose love for the environment runs deep, sees it as a necessity.

The organization has numerous factions, including acquiring and preserving wildlands, promoting trail stewardship, hosting inspiring educational programs, and supporting vital ecological research.

“I want even more people to know who we are and to consider getting involved with us,” Martin says. “We’re always looking for volunteers, especially after the pandemic. We’re down right now [in count] with volunteers, but we have so many opportunities.”

Recently Friends of the Desert Mountains received a grant from Inland Empire Community Foundation. The grant assists the organization with its efforts in bringing greater awareness to the land and its recent goals of increasing outreach to East Coachella Valley school children, high school students, and the LGBTQ+ community, the latter of which it does in partnership with The Center, the area’s LGBTQ+ community center.

Friends of the Desert Mountains also teams with Desert Recreation District.

“One of the unique things we do is take people out on field trips,” Martin says. “We’re also working with an adaptive sports hiking group, getting people on the hiking trails.”

Other things stand out. Friends of the Desert Mountains recently acquired a special wheelchair that is trail-friendly. Additionally, the organization has diversified its staff and board, “which was huge for us,” Martin adds. “Being able to have a translator on staff now, for instance, makes a big difference. So, anything that goes out the door is translated in English and Spanish.”

Not to be left out: Friends of the Desert Mountains is vigilant in its outreach to local tribes and indigenous groups. To that end, it has hired a staff member who acts as a liaison to all tribes.

Martin has been with the organization for more than 18 years. She remembers her very first day.

“I started as an administrative assistant,” she reflects. “I just love the people. I love what we’re doing in the environment. You know, I never hiked when I first came here. Now, I hike and see how happy people are when they’re out on the trails. I appreciate the volunteers we have, too, who help repair our trails. Without our volunteers, there’s no way we could accomplish everything we’re doing.”

Moving into 2023, Martin sees Friends of the Desert Mountains expanding further.

“Our tagline is ‘connecting people to the land,’ or ‘connect to the land,’” she says. “As we do that, our big focus right now is youth education. We’re reaching out to the underserved communities in Eastern Coachella Valley to get to the kids. We’ll often go into the classrooms and teach, then take students on a field trip and out onto the trails.”

Excursions to the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway filter into the mix—Martin points out that many students haven’t experienced the Tram or the Santa Rosa and San Jacinto Mountains National Monument.

These explorations heighten curiosity, and the organization’s efforts to strengthen ties to Indigenous peoples, particularly the Torres Martinez Desert Cahuilla Indians tribe, is noteworthy.

“We’re working with the tribe on a site that was willed to us,” Martin says. “It’s going to be a cultural education site. I can’t give details on where that is right now because it’s in the beginning stages. It’s just one of the things I really love about being here—getting to work with our indigenous communities. And, of course, our youth education.”

Learn more about Friends of the Desert Mountains at desertmountains.org.

This article originally appeared in the Press Enterprise, August 2022.

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