The Future of SAF: Skylar Roach

October 14, 2020

Continuing with profiles of up-and-coming SAF members who will continue managing our nation’s natural resources in the coming decades, this month The Forestry Source features Skylar Roach. Roach is an undergraduate at the University of Massachusetts (UMass), where she is earning a degree in natural resources conservation with a focus on forest ecology and conservation. Roach is the District 6 student rep for SAF (District 6 includes Rhode Island, which would have hosted the National Convention before it was pivoted to being virtual). She also is a trained peer mentor for undergraduates considering a natural resources conservation degree at UMass. As vice-president of the UMass SAF student chapter, she and other chapter members are leading an effort to push intersectional environmentalism and support people of all backgrounds in the forestry and natural resources profession.

In her own words, Roach shares how she reconnected with looking up into the tree crowns and navigated how to become an ally.

Creating a Welcoming Space within Forestry
By Skylar Roach

My journey home to forestry
I have always loved the outdoors and felt a specific pull toward forests. My parents prioritized outdoor education; I grew up staring up at the crowns of trees and down at marks in the dirt. We explored beaver swamps and set up trail cams to watch the wildlife behind our house. Yet in high school, I moved as far away from the outdoors and science as I could.

Fast forward: A month into college at the University of Massachusetts, what I thought I wanted was wrong. Not wrong as in bad, just something was not fitting right. I wanted to do more than sit behind a desk with an undergraduate degree in history, which is what I was pursuing. I started learning more about climate change and the threats to our natural environment, and decided to work in that area. Saving the planet, what an adventure! I decided it was time to go home, back to looking up at the tree crowns and down toward the soil.

I declared a major in natural resources conservation and selected the forest ecology and conservation track. For one semester, I participated in an exchange program with the University of Montana. There, I learned about the forests of the Northern Rockies, which are so different from the mountains of New England. This experience opened my eyes to research as a career option and showed me new perspectives on the issues facing our forests.

I am now in the process of applying for graduate programs and want to pursue a career in research. I want to study how forests can be more resilient in the face of climate change. I am especially interested in the interactions between trees and other organisms, like fungi and insects, and how they create symbiotic relationships. Through my experiences at UMass, I have worked on research projects on my own, as well as part of a team, and have come to love the way problems are solved and answers found.

Advocacy in natural resources
My mother raised me to do good. She emphasized respectfulness and good morals, but the words I live by are, “Do the most good, where you can, when you can.” This advice guides my decisions and my goals. I often ask myself, when an issue in my community comes to light, “What can I do?” These past six months of covid-19 and the Black Lives Matter movement have meant that I ask that question of myself almost daily. Part of it is because I can never understand the experiences of Black, Indigenous, or People of Color (BIPOC) in natural resources or the broader world, but I needed to find a starting point.

For a while I was at a loss. As a white woman, albeit a queer one, I sit high on the privilege scale. I didn’t have the education or even the words to find a starting point. Yet I had to do something, so I asked myself, “What would my mother have me do?” I started to educate myself by relearning US history. I reflected on the times when I had felt excluded in the forestry and natural resources community. I counted the times when I’ve been the only woman in the room and identified what I would have needed to feel more comfortable, more included.

Over the course of my undergraduate experience, I have had discussions with faculty members about calling out the mild sexism of some of our older professors. Their comments, such as “When I was younger, they didn’t let women into this department,” were followed by pointed looks at the four women in the classroom. Or when I was taught the history of forestry, we learned only about the contributions of white men and nothing of their shortcomings, as if they were gods. But these efforts haven’t been enough and only solve part of the problem; they only address the exclusionary parts of universities after a student has made it into a classroom. What about the rest of student life at a university? The research experiences, the advising, and the club activities we push for students to be involved in? There was something I was missing.

After attending a #BlackinSTEM webinar put on by my university, I realized that what I had needed as a freshman was an advocate. Advocacy is different than mentorship. Mentorship shows you the ropes; advocacy puts you on the ship or calls the captain and says, “I’ve got a young woman fit to be a sailor. You should hire her.” This is a powerful idea, and something I can do.

In response to this practice of advocacy, and with the help of a professor and other undergraduates, I designed an outreach program at UMass. Led by the SAF student chapter, this program looks to discuss careers in natural resources conservation with high school students. I have also started a webinar series for our student SAF members. As the vice-president of our chapter, I petitioned that we fill the gaps in our own educations by discussing the women and minorities who have made it possible for us to exist in this space at our weekly meetings. My fellow officers agreed, and we are dedicating the second half of the semester to these educational webinars that focus on women in forestry and acknowledge the indigenous land we live and work on.

When I entered forestry, I didn’t understand that I was walking into a sector fraught with a long history of racism and exclusionary practices toward many groups. Recently though, as women and minorities are gaining in numbers and notoriety, as the internet connects us across the globe, and as the US starts reckoning with its past, I feel more hopeful. I feel like I can do good and am one amongst many.

As I move forward, working as a researcher and pursuing a master’s degree and PhD, I also want to continue working as an advocate and an ally. I want to protect forests through research and work to create a more equitable world. This is the SAF I envision in the future: one that is as diverse as the population of the United States and where equity and advocacy are regular practice.

Skylar Roach can be reached at skroach@umass.edu. To learn more about the Forestry Club at UMass, visit https://www.facebook.com/UMassForestry/.

SAF members can read the full October 2020 edition of The Forestry Source here.