Len Necefer took the long way to southern Arizona. Growing up in the high desert of northern Arizona, the Navajo Nation member left the state to go to college, ultimately earning his Ph.D. in engineering and public policy out East before ending up in the Rockies. But those experiences only gave him a deeper appreciation for home: Arizona was more beautiful, the air was cleaner, and there were more wild spaces to explore.
That’s why the 30-year-old entrepreneur, professor, and outdoor enthusiast recently took a job at the University of Arizona, in Tucson, researching natural resource policy and recreation near tribal lands in North America. The move brings him to a desert landscape very different from where he spent his childhood up north, one he’d glimpsed only a few times before. But what he’s found is that the Sonoran Desert still feels like home, even if the saguaro and organ pipe are new. “It’s almost like a completely different state,” he says. “The geography between the north and the south is so different. Even the smell is different, but familiar. Up north, it smells like sage, and down here you can smell the creosote. That’s how I’m relating to the place.”
The rock climbing around Tucson has also made Necefer, an avid climber, feel at home. “Tucson is a hidden gem for climbing,” he says. “There are three major climbing spots within an hour of the city.” His two favorite places so far are Mount Lemmon, north of the city, with more than 1,500 routes, and Cochise Stronghold, in the Dragoon Mountains, which he recently visited for the first time with Outside. “It’s the ancestral homeland of the Apache,” says Necefer. “There’s a really cool story here about how Geronimo and 40 other Apache outran the U.S. Cavalry for, like, nine months.”
The area also has a deeper significance for Necefer personally. One of his main passions is helping indigenous peoples connect with the natural areas near or overlapping their traditional lands. With that in mind, a few years ago Necefer founded a company called NativesOutdoors to help native people share their stories and culture and facilitate collaboration with the outdoor industry. The company began as a social media project highlighting stories and images of indigenous people, but over time Necefer began consulting with outdoor companies about the intersections between tribes, public land, and outdoor recreation.
“There’s a really big opportunity to build an outdoor industry on tribal lands with native people,” he says. “We’re kind of getting the ball rolling. There are 22 tribes here in Arizona, with thousands of years of culture and history. There’s a lot of cool influence that can be brought to the industry. We’re using our company as a conduit for that.”
Even growing up in Arizona, many of those tribal stories are new to Necefer, like the experience of the Apaches and their history in Cochise Stronghold and other parts of the Sonoran Desert. “I’m beginning to experience the place through their lens,” he says. “You don’t have to travel overseas to see a different culture. You can see plenty right here.”
To plan a trip to Tucson, Cochise Stronghold, or one of Arizona’s other outdoor destinations, go to UnRealAZ.com.