Home to Brenda Negley is living in the midst of towering Giant Sequoias every summer at Nelder Grove above Oakhurst -- a place where she can reminisce on summers spent learning about the area from her campground host grandparents John and Marge Hawksworth. Negley has now filled her grandparents shoes as campground host and her many hours of volunteerism have been nationally recognized. She has been named the Sierra National Forest Regional and National Campground Host of the Year.
"I feel at home up here and close to family," Negley said. "I have so many memories of my grandparents here. I meet people every summer that knew them, and I get to hear their stories."
Negley accepted the award in tears at an April 25 ceremony and said she could barely even speak.
"It's an honor to be honored and it still doesn't feel real that it's national," Negley said.
With thousands of campgrounds and hosts across the nation, Dave Martin, District Ranger at the Bass Lake Ranger District, said there are many nominations. He said the process for the award is very competitive and when someone receives it they really deserve it.
"Brenda is a fabulous host and interpretive guide," said Bass Lake District Ranger Dave Martin. "She is extremely eager to educate visitors of the history of Nelder Grove and the importance of practicing Forest Service campground etiquette and fire safety. Over the years she has completed an extensive amount of public outreach and in doing so has influenced public use of Nelder Grove for generations to come."
When visitors come to Nelder Grove, Negley shares the history of the grove with them. That history includes the Southern Sierra Miwuk, early American settlers and the logging industry. She also speaks about the area's flora and fauna, as well as her own childhood memories.
"She's a great docent," Martin said. "She's just done a great job with the public and deserves it (national award) hands down."
Negley began learning the grove's history from her grandparents when she about seven years old.
"Me and my twin (Beverly) spent a good chunk of our summers with them and we would help give tours to their friends," Negley said. "I feel like I was kind of in training."
Negley's grandparents were hosts from 1970 to 1990. Brenda spent time with them every summer until high school. When she graduated from Yosemite High School in 1985, she joined the U.S. Army and worked as a driver for four years. At every opportunity, though, she would still go up to the grove to see her grandparents until they retired. After her military service, she became a teacher and taught for many years.
Later, Reid and Adele Marks became campground hosts and volunteered at Nelder Grove from 2000-2001 and 2006-2009. In 2008 and 2009, Brenda and her family began spending summers at Nelder Grove and Negley volunteered full time at the interpretive center.
"I'm just very fortunate and feel very blessed that my family supports me and let's me do what I do," Negley said.
From Memorial Day Weekend until school starts in August, Negley's whole family -- husband Brian, son Ben, 13, daughter Brooke, 11 and even their Australian Shepherd named Bailey -- makes Nelder Grove their summer home.
"We're fortunate to be local and close enough that my husband can drive to work from here," Brenda said. "We love Nelder Grove."
During those first two years, Brenda and the Marks created an interpretive guide to the trail at Nelder Grove.
"I was hoping to honor my grandparents and put something together for the public," Brenda said.
In 2010, Brenda became the official interpretive campground host and initiated interpretive walks through the 1,540-acre sequoia grove. Because of all her work, the grove has maintained its status as an interpretive historical logging site and recreational area woven with a number of multi-use trails.
In 2012, Brenda spent 700 hours volunteering at Nelder Grove and spoke to more than 2,000 visitors that stopped by the interpretive center. In the three years Brenda has volunteered full time, she has given more than 2,300 hours of her time. On top of running the interpretive center and being campground host, Brenda fills in ruts in the road, picks up trash, cleans fire pits, rakes the forest floor and even services the restrooms. Brenda also works with volunteer groups such as the Boy Scouts and the Royal Rangers to make sure the trails are well maintained.
"Brenda has gone above and beyond her basic duties as a camp host with her amazing enthusiasm," Martin said.
Brenda hopes more people will discover and take an interest in the preservation of Nelder Grove. Because of that, Brenda started a non profit organization in 2010 called the Friends of Nelder Grove. The purpose of the Friends is to manage the forest at Nelder Grove.
Martin said that the Friends of Nelder Grove, in partnership with the Sierra National Forest and Three Forest Interpretive Association, produced "beautiful" interpretive guides to help educate the public on the diverse ecological, historical and cultural information of the area.
"Brenda is an enthusiastic, positive and motivating force," Martin said. "Her energy and initiative have made a majestic place even more welcoming. We do not know what the Sierra National Forest or Nelder Grove would do without her."