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March 1, 2021
The Chesapeake Forest Champion awards are held during the annual Chesapeake Watershed Forum in Shepherdstown, W.Va., on Nov. 3, 2017. (Photo by Will Parson/Chesapeake Bay Program)
When you work in the world of forest landowner education, specifically with women who own woodlands, you are bound to hear sooner than later a version of the same cautionary tale. There’s the victim – in the case I learned, a recent widow – and an antagonist – the opportunistic logger. Shortly after the widow’s husband’s passing, the logger comes knocking on her door to offer a quick source of income if she lets him take a selective cut of the timber from her land. This practice – also known as high-grading – involves cutting the largest diameter trees of the greatest commercial value and leaving the smaller trees behind. The widow is grateful for the financial relief. The logger dismisses her remaining concerns with easy assurances that removing the bigger trees creates space and light for the smaller ones to grow. As the logger carries off the last load of timber from her land, what she does not yet realize, and might not for years to come, is that the logger has ruined one of her greatest financial assets. The small trees left behind are likely undesirable species, in poor form or poor health. The larger trees taken away were productive and healthy, their seeds the source for the next generation of the forest. It will take decades of intensive management for her woods to recover from this one timber harvest, with the value of any future harvest in her lifetime significantly reduced.
I never met this woman, but I have heard elements of her story in others’ experiences. The widow represents a type of forest landowner who is becoming rapidly more common across the United States. According to a 2016 study from the U.S. Forest Service, the percent of women serving as the primary decision-maker on their land increased from 11 to 22 percent between 2006 and 2013, making them one of the fastest-growing demographics of forest landowners in the country (Butler et al. 2016c). As of 2013, women-owned an estimated 31% of private forest land in the U.S. among single-owner populations, and at least co-owned 58% of all private forest land in the U.S.
The harsh reality is most women landowners are not the traditional decision-makers for forest management. A 2018 study from the U.S. Forest Service found that compared to their male counterparts, women are significantly less likely to manage for wildlife, have a commercial timber harvest, or have undertaken management activities in the past five years when they are the primary decision maker. Women also are significantly more likely to inherit their forest land, especially from a spouse. It’s easy to see the widow’s experience echoed in this data: for years, a woman stays out of the day-to-day management of her land, deferring to her husband or other relatives to make decisions. Suddenly, she finds herself the sole owner and decision-maker, eager to serve as a steward but ill-equipped or lacking confidence in making management decisions. This inexperience might result in her taking no management actions at all, or worse, actions that are detrimental to the health of her woods.
A national effort is taking place at a grassroots scale to reach these women, educate them on the principles of forestry and best practices in forest management, and introduce them to a network of other women managing their own woodlands. There are collectives of non-profit organizations, state cooperative extensions, state forestry agencies, universities, federal agencies, and local governments working together to create programming specific to women who own woods. The first of such programs that I learned about was Women and their Woods, started by the Delaware Highlands Conservancy and the Center for Private Forests at Penn State in 2008. Women and their Woods serve women woodland owners in Pennsylvania, New York, and New Jersey through programming, newsletters, and networks. Every other year, they offer a multi-day retreat full of experts covering a whirlwind of topics. They start with an exercise to identify personal motivations for owning woodlands, accelerate through basic plant identification, forestry measurements, and wildlife habitat, and end on more complicated topics such as timber harvests and estate planning. In the off years, they host smaller workshops on practical concepts such as chainsaw safety and invasive plant management.
2018 class of Women and their Woods. Photo courtesy of the Delaware Highlands Conservancy
When I learned about Women and their Woods, I was floored. I had never heard of anything like it: a program exclusively for women on managing woodlands. It was also 2015, and I had started at the Alliance just a few months before. It was my first job out of graduate school and I quickly realized that my research experience was not translating neatly to planning and designing restoration projects. I was embarrassed by how much I still had to learn, and my embarrassment left me hesitant to ask for help, not sure of the kind of help I needed. And so a space for women to learn about woodland stewardship, to be vulnerable about what they do not know, sounded perfect for me.
Did I sign up for the next retreat? No, I did not. I did, however, keep in contact with the program planners and in October 2017, I was invited to attend the Workshop on Effective Engagement of Women Woodland Owners in Briarcliff Manor, NY. This multi-day retreat was the first of its kind, convened by the Yale-based Sustainable Family Forests Initiative for natural resource professionals from across the United States. A few things stand out from that experience for me. First, all 30 of the professionals who attended were women. Second, this group of natural resource professionals and academics from across the country represented the majority of leaders in women forest landowner engagement and programming at the time.
Group photo of participants at the Workshop on Effective Engagement of Women Woodland Owners in Briarcliff Manor, NY in October 2017. Photo courtesy of the Sustainable Family Forests Initiative.]
Talking to these professionals, most said the same things. Their male colleagues are incredibly supportive of them and this effort. But when we take a non-gendered topic, like forestry, and look at it through the lens of a woman’s unique experience, it makes sense why women professionals dominate this space. Women want to learn about forestry from other women. Simply put, representation matters. Unfortunately, women forestry professionals are still relatively scarce. A 2015 study found only 17 to 26 percent of scientists at the U.S. Forest Service and university faculty at forestry schools identified as female. In a nationwide 2002 study, researchers found that only 10% of urban forestry professionals were women. Women of color are particularly underrepresented in forestry. During a panel on Black Women and Forestry at the 2021 Taking Nature Black conference, I recently learned that there are just six black female foresters working for the U.S. Forest Service currently. In the 2002 study of urban forestry professionals, less than 1% identified as women of color.
I did eventually make it to the Women and their Woods retreat in fall 2018 as part of a shadowing program funded by the Sustaining Family Forests Initiative at Yale. It was as incredible of an experience as I had imagined. Even though I spent most of the time participating and observing, the educator in me came out to help with tree identification. Photo courtesy of the Delaware Highlands Conservancy
Returning to the widow in the story, if she had attended a Women and their Woods retreat before conducting the timber harvest, one of the first things she would have learned is to have a forest stewardship plan written by a professional forester. This plan, among other things, would have set forth a detailed strategy for the commercial timber harvest that would optimize income while maintaining or improving the health and quality of her woods. She would also have learned to hire a private consulting forester to serve as her representative and advocate during the harvest to ensure it went according to her stewardship plan. If she sought to hire a female consulting forester, however, she likely would have had a difficult time finding one. Most women natural resource professionals working in forestry are like me: employed by a non-profit organization, university, or the government. Women consulting foresters are in the minority. According to Shannon McCabe, Executive Director with the Association of Consulting Foresters, there are currently 33 female members listed in their national registry of nearly 600 individuals.
Mentorship is important, and these three forestry professionals are inspirations to me. From left to right, Sally Claggett, Rebecca Hamner, Judy Okay, and myself taken at the 2017 Chesapeake Forest Champion award ceremony at the Chesapeake Watershed Forum in Shepherdstown, WV. Photo by Will Parson/Chesapeake Bay Program.
Just as much as women landowners seek and desire a community of fellow women woodland owners, so do women forestry professionals. I have found mentorship through several of the remarkable women involved in forest restoration and management in the Chesapeake Bay watershed. Thanks to the 2017 Workshop on Effective Engagement of Women Woodland Owners, I also am now connected to a network of predominantly women professionals across the country. One of the outcomes of the Workshop was the creation of WOWnet Professionals, a spin off of the Women Owning Woodlands, itself a collaborative project of the National Woodland Owners Association and the U.S. Forest Service. The WOWnet professionals is a group exchanging ideas, resources, and providing support to others working to advance women woodland owner engagement and programming. It was through this group that I learned about the upcoming International Women’s Day Event hosted by the Women’s Forest Congress on March 8th, where I look forward to expanding my network of women in forestry even farther.
If you are a landowner interested in learning whether a woman woodland owner education program exists in your state, go to womenowningwoodlands.net. Professionals in this field can learn more about WOWnet Professionals and other resources on the WOW Leader Resources page.
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