By Rita Hite
On January 1, 2022, I put my boots on the ground as the first woman to serve as President and CEO of the American Forest Foundation (AFF). The mission of AFF is to deliver meaningful conservation impact through the empowerment of family forest owners. Working together, we strive to cultivate the many conservation benefits family-owned forests provide—and demonstrate their value to American communities, companies, and landowners alike.
In my new role at AFF and as a founding member of the Women’s Forest Congress (WFC), I see that there has never been a brighter time for forest owners, conservation, and women leaders. This Earth Day, I see an enormous opportunity to catalyze impact through forests, and as a community, we can do so in ways that are inclusive and equitable because we need everyone on this journey with us to succeed.
Forests, including family-owned forests, have long made vital contributions to our nation’s needs and vitality – our forests provide clean water, habitat for wildlife, and a sustainable source for our economy and livelihoods. But our forests can do even more – specifically to address our world’s most pressing challenge – mitigating climate change.
Forests cover more than 750 million acres of land in the United States. They are our nation’s largest terrestrial carbon sink, currently offsetting 15% of our country’s carbon emissions. What’s more, studies suggest this number could be nearly doubled – doubled – if we take greater action in our woods.
Many organizations are working diligently on addressing climate change, all from many angles, including AFF’s own Family Forest Carbon Program. Yet what I see is that to reach the necessary scale that will lead to true meaningful impact, we need to take an inclusive and collaborative approach. We need women, people of color, and other historically underrepresented groups engaged in this work to a much greater degree to make the efforts much more impactful.
The Women’s Forest Congress is a forum for women to be leaders in working together for forests and empowering all voices and hands to contribute to this effort. Like AFF, the Women’s Forest Congress is committed to building partnerships and establishing networks of people and organizations that elevate forests as a key solution that can help mitigate climate change. That is why I believe so strongly in the Women’s Forest Congress.
The WFC is also committed to increasing diversity, equity, and inclusion in the forest sector. Family forest owners come from all walks of life that reflect American society as a whole. Yet, the forest sector has less than 20% participation by women and even less by people of color, according to data from the US Census Bureau. This creates an imbalance of representation and misses an opportunity to broaden forest impact and climate benefits.
Both AFF and WFC are working to change this. First, we are working to empower women and minority leaders in their roles as professionals in the forestry sector. Second, we are working to create more equitable opportunities for participation in forest conservation and forest-related markets by historically underserved landowners in order to reach the scale needed to address the scale of our challenge.
I have never been more optimistic than I am today about the future of our forests. When we come together, when we are inclusive, when we elevate new ideas, new skills, and new voices, we can do so much to secure a bright, shared future where we have tackled climate change and other issues and helped the world better see the true, meaningful value of our forests.
I encourage you to join us. Sign up for the Women’s Forest Congress newsletter to learn more about ways you get involved in this important work.