by Terry Baker, CEO Society of American Foresters
There was a palpable sense of relief and an undercurrent of joy at the inaugural Women’s Forest Congress in Minneapolis in October 2022.
As one of four male participants, I was honored to be present at this historic event. I’m sure my presence surprised some, but more often than not, I was greeted with appreciation and curiosity. My favorite question provided a window into how many women likely feel at forestry meetings and possibly within their own organizations, “are you uncomfortable?” I was not. My lack of discomfort did not stem from a place of ego. Rather, it is grounded in my own story.
I was raised by a single mother. While she worked, I spent many hours of my childhood with my grandmother and great-grandmother. Through them, my respect and curiosity about how women navigate their world took root.
Surrounded by approximately 500 women engaged in all aspects of forestry or sustainable resource management, my fellow participants marveled—at times out loud—at the constructive and energizing nature of being in a forestry meeting unlike any before.
The first Women’s Forest Congress was the epitome of what I call an “encouraging space.” Attendees had the pleasure of interacting, sharing ideas, and discussing issues openly and not in the corners of meetings or offices where a handful of women might gather.
I engaged in many thoughtful and inspiring conversations sharing in the silence of difficult stories and the laughter of triumphs. At this first Women’s Forest Congress, I had two roles: to listen and to support.
Listen, Support… and Learn
My priorities in participating were to embody support from the Society of American Foresters and listen humbly to the stories, ideas, concerns, and successes. One of SAF’s core responsibilities is serving its members and non-members as they navigate the forestry sector. This experience enriched my ongoing journey to learn about the needs of our members and the broader profession. Furthermore, it deepened my understanding of several realities:
- Many phenomenal, inspiring women field-going specialists and administrative professionals have been, are doing and will continue to do a tremendous amount of important work in forestry and sustainable forest management.
- Creating encouraging spaces for groups that historically have been underrepresented in forest-focused agencies and organizations is now more important than ever. The demographics of forestry professionals, forest owners, and forest investors are shifting rapidly, as are the numbers of people employed and leading forest initiatives. The public policy landscape is changing as well, with more women and minorities engaged in making decisions around forest management and lobbying the decision-makers. The more we can facilitate the exchange of ideas and foster respect among all forest-focused professionals, the better it will be for the resource we strive to preserve.
- Being a woman in forestry is an entirely different experience than being a man in forestry. That’s no revelation to anyone reading this, but the perspective women can bring to traditionally male-dominated conversations about sustainable forest management can be. From their unique vantage points, backgrounds, and approaches to problem-solving come unique ideas; the rest of us need to actively and truly listen.
- It’s critically important that organizations like the one I lead, the Society of American Foresters, help grow the knowledge, understanding, and excitement of being in forestry with everyone. Still, it is essential to pay attention to and share how we support women in this space.
- There’s so much more to learn about and from women in forestry, their experiences, and their accomplishments.
- Finally, there is joy in the work we do, being together and celebrating our progress, if we only commit to move intentionally towards it. We would do well to follow the lead of the participants in the first Women’s Forest Congress. As just one example, it never entered my imagination that I’d see so much Zumba® at a forestry event. But you know what? Doing the joyful dance exercise before sessions (and any other time or place the urge took hold) reminded us that while we’re highly technical, passionate professionals, we can still have fun.
Building “The Greatest” for Forests
At SAF, we keep the words of Gifford Pinchot, our founder and the co-founder and first chief of the U.S. Forest Service, at the forefront of our minds. In describing the new agency’s purpose, he said it was to “provide the greatest good of the greatest number in the long run.”
The advent of the Women’s Forest Congress is clearly another step in the right direction for forestry and sustainable forest management in terms of bringing that vision to life. With it comes a renewed responsibility for SAF and other forest-focused organizations to perpetuate the work we all know, love, and value in ways that simultaneously listen to and support women.
We all, in my estimation, have a responsibility to provide women and members of other underrepresented groups the freedom to be foresters.
It is right and proper that this new movement provides an encouraging space for women in forest management, but there’s so much more work to do for our profession and the future of our forests. While we’ve taken a giant leap forward with the first Women’s Forest Congress, we have not yet reached the pinnacle of providing “the greatest good of the number in the long run.”
We at the SAF can’t wait to see – and be part of – what comes next.