A Woman's Place Is in the Woods

More and more of us are finding ourselves in the role of forest managers.

I ’M LIMBING WHITE FIRS. As the pole-saw slices through a dead branch, it sags, snaps, and falls to the ground with a satisfying crash. Sunlight streams through the canopy. With each branch, more light reaches the forest floor.

My husband and I own six-and-a-half forested acres in Southern Oregon. Our land was logged heavily in the 1960s; today it abuts the Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument. We live with the threat of wildfire and have been working to reduce fuel loads.

I love working in the woods. I also love walking through them, listening for warblers, hunting morels, and discovering the season’s first Fritillaria. But when I talk trees with my neighbors, it’s the men who have strong opinions about forest management, and they’re the ones running the chainsaws. Where are the women like me, who want to be actively involved in stewarding their land? I decide to find out.

WHEN I FIRST MET Helga Bush, she is sorting through piles of slash on the sloping ground above her house. Helga and her husband Steve moved to Oregon from Chicago in 2009. Both had worked as research chemists in the pharmaceutical industry; neither had ever managed a woodland. Much of their 17 acres was an impenetrable thicket, and located in one of the most fire-prone forests in the county. The Bushes hired a local forester to help them write a Forest Stewardship Plan and applied for grants to help fund thinning projects. Then they pulled on their gloves and went to work, hacking through honeysuckle, poison oak, and Himalayan blackberry.

“At some point, my husband confessed, ‘You know, I think I’m more of a country gentleman,’” says Bush. “I think he imagined strolling through the forest and picking up sticks.”

A warm woman in her 50s, Bush thrived on the physical activity and the constant sense of discovery. But in 2014, Steve died suddenly, leaving her with the property, several half-finished projects, and their shared vision.

Like Bush, more and more women are finding themselves in the role of woodland managers and stewards. These women want to make good decisions about their land, but often haven’t spent time working in the woods. Traditional programs like those offered by county agencies might not appeal to them, and in mixed-gender settings women often fade into the background, afraid of asking “stupid” questions.

Bush was attending a forestry conference for small woodland owners a few years ago when she met Tiffany Hopkins, who coordinates Oregon’s Master Woodland Manager program and the state’s Women Owning Woodlands network, or WOWnet.

Hopkins explained to Bush that WOWnet had been organizing a series of women-only events throughout Oregon, ranging from workshops on safe chainsaw operation to informal site visits where women learn from other women who are woodland managers. Hopkins stressed that the peer-to-peer learning and laid-back setting allow women to ask those “stupid questions.”

“It sounded wonderful — women getting together and helping each other,” says Bush. In the handful of states that have active programs, wow can help fill knowledge gaps and give women the confidence to make tough decisions, says Emily Huff, a social scientist who heads the Human Dimensions of Natural Resources lab at Michigan State University. Oregon’s wow network includes women like Bush and me, who are stewarding small parcels, as well as women like Wylda Cafferata, who manages hundreds of acres with her husband, Steve.

The Cafferatas have been married for 53 years. They started purchasing timberland in 2009, and today they own four parcels in three northwest Oregon counties. Though they are managing their trees for eventual harvest, they’re also promoting other objectives: wildlife habitat, mental and physical fitness, and controlling invasive species.

“WOWnet has helped me a bunch,” says Wylda Cafferata. “Plus it really is fun to be around women who ‘get it.’ I love my other women friends, but they don’t necessarily want to talk about timber management.”

A retired teacher, Cafferata turned to WOWnet, the Oregon Small Woodlands Association, and trade journals to help her co-manage timberland with her husband, a career forester. “My husband is a timber guy,” says Cafferata. “Not that he doesn’t like wildlife, but it’s not his main focus. Now if he wants to cut a tree, I say, ‘Now wait a minute.’”

Huff has observed that in shared decision-making contexts, women tend to manage finances and logistics. “But there’s also an opportunity to empower women to participate in other aspects of forest management,” she says. Hiring loggers, running a chainsaw, removing invasive species — there’s no reason a woman can’t do these things, too.

“We know from broader gendered research that women tend to be more collaborative, while men think more hierarchically,” says Huff. “This collaborative skillset is essential for the big problems facing our forests,” she says, referring to issues like climate change, invasive species, and unchecked deforestation.

Private owners control 58 percent of the nation’s woodlands. As more women come into management positions, they will play an increasing role in the future of our forests. Huff and other researchers have started surveying women separately to learn what special challenges they face, and how their attitudes might differ from their male counterparts.

Woodland owners across the country consistently list beauty, privacy, and family legacy as top objectives, but “women often express a greater familial commitment, and the desire to keep our forests as forests,” says Huff. “With that comes an opportunity for conservation.”

Most of the Cafferatas’ acreage consists of young trees, including some she and her husband planted themselves. In contrast to industrial models, which promote harvest rotations of 35 to 40 years, they’re managing for 60-year rotations, at minimum. Instead of monocultures, they’re planting several species, including redwoods on their coastal parcel. Cafferata likes to imagine these saplings as the giants they will become.

“I won’t see it; my children won’t see it,” she says. “But my grandchildren might.”

I FOLLOW HELGA BUSH upslope through a sun-dappled forest of Douglas-fir, incense cedar, Pacific madrone, and oaks, where we pass dozens of neatly stacked slash piles. Running up against her grant deadline, Bush hired a crew to help finish thinning 11 acres of her property. She tagged individual trees she didn’t want cut, paying special attention to the mature white and black oaks that had escaped loggers’ chainsaws over the past century.

“Hopefully if I improve conditions for the oaks, they’ll bring in the birds and other wildlife,” she says.

The burn piles will never see a flame. Instead, Bush is dismantling them: The largest branches she saves for stove wood; the smallest get chipped. She reserves medium-sized branches for her Hugelkultur — or raised garden bed — sites. She explains how she layers the limbs with leaves, creating beds that retain moisture and slowly build soil.

I know I will feel different next time I’m out in my own woods, limbing trees or stacking branches for the Hugelkultur beds I intend to start. I will imagine women like Helga, Tiffany, and Wylda — a network of women, as expansive and nurturing as mycelium — holding the forest for the next generations.

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