SAF Celebrates Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander (AAPI or AANHPI) Heritage Month

May 18, 2022

In coordination with our
Diversity and Inclusion Policy, the Society of American Foresters (SAF) is committed to promoting an environment designed to embrace our differences in which all community members are welcomed and valued, creating diversity and inclusion in our leadership, membership, programs, and activities. SAF is making an intentional effort in 2022 to be more inclusive in the way we celebrate community members and connect with those who value forests and their benefits. 

May is Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander (AAPI or AANHPI) Heritage Month. This year, we honor the theme of “Advancing Leaders Through Collaboration” set by the Federal Asian Pacific American Council (FAPAC). As FAPAC observes, a collaborative environment fosters transparency, which in turn allows for a culture of openness and trust needed to foster diversity and inclusion. Collaboration is critical in a field like natural resource management, where working in partnership across sectors, interests, and boundaries enables us to effect sustainable outcomes across the landscape. And collaboration is needed more than ever in forestry–not only to address technical challenges like climate change and wildfire, but to actively build an inclusive and diverse network of professionals. 

AANHPI communities have been instrumental to the growth and development of the American landscape, and May is a time to celebrate these contributions. In fact, the month of May was specifically chosen to commemorate the arrival of the first Japanese immigrants to the United States on May 7, 1843, who were critical to establishing agricultural economies in the American West and also worked in logging, mining, and railroad development. This month was also chosen to commemorate the completion of the First Transcontinental Railroad on May 10, 1869, a milestone made possible by Chinese immigrants, and one which transformed America’s relationship to the landscape. Notably, Chinese communities also played a central role in the mining industry and the lumber trade of the era. 

This month is also an opportunity to think about why recognition and celebration are so important to our community. In the wake of surges in anti-Asian violence during the COVID-19 pandemic, we have a chance to cultivate public awareness of AANHPI cultures, both in their challenges and triumphs. For instance, the efforts of the Chinese immigrants who built the Transcontinental Railroad went unacknowledged for nearly a century, and were shortly after its construction subject to the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 (click here to view a USDA Forest Service short film honoring this history). Similarly, the Japanese immigrants who came to the US as agricultural workers in the 19th century were thereafter prohibited from owning land under the Alien Land Laws due to their success in the industry. And a century before that, colonists began displacing native Hawaiian communities and altered the islands’ landscape and ecology, a legacy still borne out today. These legacies are not often told in the publicized story of land use change and natural resource management, but they are integral to fully understanding the intersection of American culture and natural resources.

Amidst the challenges, there is much to celebrate in recognition of all AANHPI communities, who trace their roots to more than 40 countries with over 100 languages. We celebrate today’s AANHPI leaders in our forestry community by virtue of generations of people who embodied perseverance, vision, and stewardship. In 2021, Gene Kodama became the first Asian American to serve as President of the SAF Board of Directors following 45 years of membership in SAF and an accomplished career in forestry. Dr. Janaki Alavalapati has published more than 200 publications and became dean of the School of Forestry and Wildlife Sciences at Auburn University in 2015. Dr. Yenie Tran, Manager of Client Service at Resource Management Service LLC (RMS), uses her economics and marketing background to successfully meld both worlds together and bring a different perspective to the profession. In 2021, Dr. I-Kuai Hung of Stephen F. Austin State University received the Carl Alwin Schenck Award from SAF in recognition of his notable and sustained record of excellence in forestry education. And in 2020, Dr. Daowei Zhang, an SAF Fellow and 2009 recipient of the SAF Award in Forestry Science, was named the associate dean of research at Auburn University’s School of Forestry and Wildlife Sciences. We are grateful to these leaders and others for their contributions to the field of forestry and natural resources.

We are also grateful to the many organizations who work to provide access and empowerment to AANHPI communities. For instance, the APA Heritage Collective is a collaboration of public and private entities providing education and access to heritage resources on our public lands for urban and suburban communities. Their work is explored in the USDA Forest Service short film titled Legacy, where they bring descendants of Chinese railroad workers to important Chinese cultural heritage sites within the Tahoe National Forest. And as a subset of the Western Forestry Leadership Coalition, the Pacific Islands Forestry Committee (PIFC) is comprised of forestry leaders from the US-Affiliated Pacific Islands working to advocate for regional forest managers as well as provide a forum for technology transfer, training, and cultural information exchange related to the unique forest management challenges of the area. Federal agencies are also playing their part, with the Department of Interior and the USDA Forest Service educating the public on AANHPI heritage and improving representation by sharing employee spotlights. Notably, the Asian Pacific American Employees Association is an organization for current and former employees of the Forest Service that play an important role in providing a network of support for the AANHPI natural resource professionals (you can view their 2021 Fall Newsletter here).

As we face pressing environmental challenges like climate change and the wildfire crisis, the stewardship of our nation’s forests and rangelands is of mounting importance. Diversity, equity, and justice will play a central role in our management decisions if we are to find holistic, long-term solutions. Alongside a national network of natural resource professionals, SAF shares a duty both in understanding how race has shaped our landscape and in taking action to ensure a more inclusive and equitable future.

“As we celebrate AAPI month,” remarked SAF CEO Terry Baker, “I am reminded of the importance of what we accomplish together as a forestry community. Reflections on where we can improve and the work of organizations creating outdoor spaces for the AAPI community. Our ability to understand and share will help build trust and connect more people to our natural spaces and our profession as a career.”