PINETOP-LAKESIDE – Employees of Arizona Game & Fish, TRACKS members and White Mountain Nature Center enthusiasts gathered in unity at the Old Hatchery Trail beside the Region 1 Office of Arizona Game & Fish Department (AZGFD) to honor a TRACKS trailblazer– Liz Wise, who was actually the inspiration for the trail.

Dan Groebner, a biologist for the AZGFD, opened the ceremony and as project coordinator for the signs, unveiled the TRACKS sign for the trailhead and the sign for Wise’s legacy to the organizations she devoted so many years to serving.

TRACKS President Nick Lund spoke to the crowd about Wise and her invaluable contributions.

“Liz Wise was truly the best of the best. She spent her professional career as a teacher with the White Mountain Apache Tribe. As an avid hiker and outdoors person, she thought the White Mountains Trail System should be one of the premier trail systems in Arizona. For many years she served as a TRACKS board member, trail boss, and liaison between TRACKS and the US Forest Service Lakeside Ranger District. As our trail boss, Liz taught the TRACKS trail crew how to build sustainable trails, worked to secure USFS approval for proposed trail work, would pinflag approved work for the trail crew, oversee and work with the trail crew, maintain the trail tools, and bring them to each work day in her truck.

“When Liz reached the point in her life that she could no longer do these things, she gracefully let us know (expletives included). We found a two wheel lockable trailer for the trail tools. We teased her that she had been replaced with a trailer. Her untiring efforts paid off. Not only has the White Mountains Trail System received a number of awards, it is rated by Arizona State Parks and Trails as one of the premier systems in the State. Liz is one of our heroes and is greatly missed.”

Though Wise died on Oct. 28, 2018, it took time to establish the tax deductible fund which will help continue the environmental conservation projects which she had supported. The fund will be administered by the White Mountain Nature Center, a 501©(3), and the projects will be selected by her family.

Wise’s son Jonathan Cooley addressed the group, attesting to his mother’s love for the environment and said she would not like the event being about her — she did not do it for her own recognition. She was passionate about the whole thing and was in it for the purpose.

Several in the crowd spoke of their memories with Wise which was not only a testament to the love she had for Arizona and the outdoors but also of her camaraderie with diverse groups.

Speaking with Cooley after the ceremony, he said his mother was originally from Evanston, Illinois, from a wealthy family, never lacking for anything.

While still in high school Wise came out to the Timberline Dude Ranch in Vernon on summer breaks where she fell in love with the area. Being an independent spirit and a more rugged individual who preferred the Southwestern lifestyle to what she had been accustomed to, at 18, when she graduated, she “jumped to the Southwest,” already having made friends in Vernon, and it was there she met his dad.

Cooley said the White Mountain Region was her spot. “That’s why when she retired she built her home not two miles from the old dude ranch.”

After obtaining her teaching degree from Arizona State University, she began teaching with the Whiteriver School District where she taught her entire career.

Cooley said they lived on the White Mountain Apache Reservation which was a great place to live and enjoy the outdoors.

“She was a great fisher person,” said Cooley. “She taught me how to fish. She and I would go and camp at different places in the summer.”

Cooley said it wasn’t until later that she acquired a fascination for hiking, After he and his sister left home, she went hiking “all over the place,” because she loved seeing new places and getting out into all of the areas.

“She was not into touristy stuff, but more into seeing pretty places not impacted by human development,” said Cooley.

Wise’s network of friends had similar interests which led her to TRACKS, a fledgling operation at the time. She got involved, but it was when she retired that she “really dove into it.” Cooley said she loved keeping busy and was motivated doing that work.

Cooley said his mother believed that the outdoors comes with responsibility. “Her view is that it empowers and enriches us and we need to pay back a little of whatever way you can, and that includes enjoying it.”

With regard to the funding of projects, Cooley said, “We wanted to do what we could. It took time, of course, for private donations and waiting for funds from the fund. There were a lot of different people at different times pushing the pieces.”

Some of the environmental conservation projects that were important to Wise and are possible projects the family is looking at are: Interpretive improvements at the Pinetop Game & Fish Ponds Wetland – just completed; the White Mountain Trail System and TRACKS support; Eagle Scout projects at the Nature Center, and on TRACKS trails, and other project ideas submitted to the Nature Center, Arizona Game & Fish and White Mountain Nature Center.

Reach the reporter at

Barbara Bruce is a reporter for the White Mountain Independent, covering arts and entertainment on the Mountain and the Pinetop-Lakeside town government.

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