SAF Celebrates Women’s History Month

March 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. 

As SAF celebrates Women’s History Month, we honor the theme set by the National Women’s History Alliance: “Women Providing Healing, Promoting Hope.” Hope and healing were integral aspects of the work that women brought to the modern forestry profession throughout the last century. In the US, the historic exclusion of women from the forest sector was intimately tied to traditional conceptions of forestry as a masculine and extractive practice centered around logging. However, forestry as an industry and profession integrates a complex set of considerations, from sustainability and ecological resilience to forest aesthetics and spiritual connectedness. Due to mounting challenges like climate change and the biodiversity crisis, forests are now more than ever a symbol of healing and hope.

Women in the US have been involved in forestry from the dawn of its emergence as a profession in the early 20th century. Prior to being permitted into research and field work positions, many women worked in clerical, administrative, educational, and advocacy positions. As Dr. Rachel D. Kline observes, the early women of the Forest Service “carved out interesting and worthwhile work for themselves and spread the cause of conservation as forest builders and forest guards.” They forged their own tradition in what Dr. Kline calls a “feminine forestry,” without which the US Forest Service (USFS) would not be where it is today.

The first woman to be hired into a professional research position at the USFS was Dr. Eloise Gerry, who in 1910 began work as a scientist in the Forest Products Laboratory studying southern pine trees. Soon after in 1913, Hallie Morse Dagget became the first field officer hired by the USFS in her role as fire lookout for the Eddy Gulch Station in Klamath National Forest. However, it was not until 1957 that the USFS hired its first female forester, Joanne G. McElfresh, who worked in Deerlodge National Forest (now the Beaverhead-Deerlodge) in Montana. The tides began turning in the 1970’s when women were hired at the USFS into research and technical positions in greater numbers; this shift was fostered by the expansion of civil rights, bans on sexual discrimination, and related legal actions by women enforcing their right to equal opportunity.

Lifting women’s voices today involves acknowledging and celebrating this path to representation and equity in the forestry profession. Building on the legacy of forestry’s earliest trailblazers, we find so much to celebrate in the experiences of women today who continue to challenge preconceptions around gender roles and succeed in the forest sector.

With decades of experience in natural resource policy, this year Rita Hite became the first woman President and Chief Executive Officer of the American Forest Foundation where she works to bring equity and inclusion into national conservation challenges. Since 2018, Shannon McCabe has served as Executive Director of the Association of Consulting Foresters, standing out among today’s leaders in her passion for fostering professional connections and growth in the forest sector. And celebrating one of our newest members to SAF’s Committee on Forest Policy, Dr. Sharon Jean-Philippe’s work as Professor of Urban Forestry and Urban Forestry State Extension Specialist at the University of Tennessee Knoxville brings conservation knowledge to landowners in her region and highlights the importance of inspiring students through experiential learning.

SAF recognizes that there is still work to be done by all of us in the profession to create a more inclusive forest industry. Leaders like Hite, McCabe, and Dr. Jean-Philippe’s are paving pathways in a profession that continues to learn the best ways to support women as students and professionals. At the 2019 SAF National Conference, we learned that women make up nearly 60% of undergraduate students enrolled in environmental programs but only 23% of students enrolled in forestry programs. Naturally, these gendered trends translate to the professional world. As of 2019, women represented just 16% of forestry and conservation professionals in the US as a whole.

However, we are hopeful to see many organizations working to make a shift in these trends. At the University of Maine School of Natural Resources, a group of faculty and students recently formed a program called Supporting Women in Forestry Today (SWIFT). Taking an adaptive and evidence-based approach to gender diversity in the workplace, SWIFT has proven successful at building awareness of gender-related issues in forestry and building a more welcoming environment through fostering professional connections. Organizations like Women Owning Woodlands (WOW) are creating a network of grassroots leaders that provide community, resources, and tools for women to confidently steward their land. Among other women-led networks like Oregon Women in Timber (ORWIT) and Women and Their Woods, WOW is positioned to support a rapidly growing demographic in the US of women forest owners. SAF’s Mollie Beattie Visiting Scholar in Forest Policy Program models the efforts of Mollie Beattie, the first woman to head the US Fish and Wildlife Service, and encourages those from underrepresented groups to become foresters or professionals in other natural resource fields. These efforts are critical to shaping a diverse and inclusive profession which recognizes and reflects the important role that women continue to play in shaping the future of our forests.

“It is an honor to celebrate Women’s History Month,” says CEO Terry Baker. ”Our profession and organization continues to grow and evolve over time. There has been a growing number of female board members in recent years guiding our organization in their efforts to better meet the needs of our professionals. I am grateful for the trailblazers within SAF. Jane Difley (1993), Joann Cox (2015), and Tammy Cushing (2020) represent three leaders who have held the highest position within SAF, President of the Board. These women and many others continue to inspire and mentor the next generation of female SAF members and forestry professionals. The growing number of female professional foresters and landowners are dispelling preconceived notions and stereotypes of who and how we steward our natural resources. Their insights and efforts have, are, and will make the forestry profession and SAF better.”