Women Of The Woodlands

Some 13 years ago, a scene not unheard of in rural Oregon forests played out on the tailgate of a pick-up truck. A group of women had gathered there to get away from their spouses for a bit. But their conversation wasn’t particularly ordinary. The women were attendees of an Oregon Small Woodlands Association meeting, and were discovering together the need for a women-only forestry group to form—and now they are helping folks from all around to hang on to their forests and grow like the trees therein. 

Since that evening in 2005, Oregon has become a well-known state for its establishment of a Women Owning Woodlands Network, called WOWNet. WOWNet puts on about half a dozen meetings across the state annually, and many informal ones take place in between. All together, these include statewide retreats bi-annually, numerous regional workshops on forest management planning and non-timber forest products, and regular hikes locally through woodland owners’ properties. Funding by the Oregon Forest Resource Institute allows this programming to come free of charge to participants, eliminating one potential barrier to women in the field.  

“The goal is for women to come together and learn not only from whatever educational opportunity we’re offering at that time, but also to network and engage with one another and to share experiences between each other,” says Tiffany Hopkins, the coordinator for both WOWNet and the Master Woodland Manager Program for Oregon State University’s College of Forestry’s Forestry and Natural Resources Extension Program. “The value behind that is so important, to be able to say ‘this is what I’m going through’ and have another woman say ‘I went through that too and this is how I did it.’”

Women are not often the image that comes to mind amongst the general public when visualizing forest owners. More often, a picture similar to that of the Timbers Football Club’s mascot, Timber Joey, might appear: a bearded, large man in thick flannel carrying a substantial chainsaw. However, 22% of the nation’s private forested lands comprise of a woman as the primary decision-maker, and it is becoming more and more recognized within the forestry world that women play a crucial role in influencing the future of forests. Since male spouses generally pass first, end-of-life decisions often fall on a woman’s shoulders. These choices can determine whether a forested property is conserved or developed into another land use. 

Historically, loggers looking to make a profit would target widows known to be in possession of timberlands. Because of their relative lack of a formal forestry education, loggers would be able to convince the women that their trees were infested with beetles or otherwise compromised, and would tell them that they could take care of it. “These women would be completely robbed of their forest and money that they should have been getting, and instead paying somebody,” Hopkins explains. Unfortunately, “that has not gone away yet, that loggers will take advantage of women who are less educated.”

In contrast to more traditional forestry education events, WOWNet events allow women to unapologetically ask any question they may have, such as which loggers are trustworthy. Feelings of intimidation about being one of the only women in a room may prevent them from doing so in a mixed-gender setting. “We try to really hone in on [that there’s] no stupid questions, ask whatever you want, and probably someone else is thinking the same thing, so just ask it,” Hopkins says. This helps to break down the perception many women in forestry—or in any male-dominated field for that matter—have that they must prove their self to their male counterparts, or else stay quiet and in the background. Having a meeting room or forest road filled with only the voices of women leaves the members feeling empowered. 

In her own life, Hopkins has experienced sexism in the woods when working with various landowners, especially while obtaining her Masters Degree in West Virginia. “One guy wanted to talk to me about how I needed to carry a gun with me at all times. I said ‘I don’t feel like I need to do that’, and he said ‘you have no right to be out in the woods if you aren’t going to bring a means to protect yourself,’ meaning a gun,” she describes, “I had never interacted with that kind of person before. But there were a couple different landowners who expressed that sentiment, that ‘you don’t have the right to be in the woods’ or ‘what does your dad think of this?’” There she was one of two females in the entire forestry department, whereas in her undergraduate years at Oregon State University, there were many other women in her program, both in the form of peers and mentors. These contrasting educational settings emphasized how much a difference having a group of supporting women in the field is to feeling fulfilled in it, and encouraged her to come back to work here.

Hopkins is pleased to see that the membership of WOWNet is always evolving. “It can be a jumping point for women, which is what we hope for,” she explains, “they find themselves in this situation and are able to come to WOWNet events and learn and feel empowered to then go to other more traditional forestry education events. So then maybe they grow out of WOWNet and don’t need it as much anymore, or sometimes they just love to come to things so they’ll act more as a mentor.” Thus starts a cycle where, “we get new women, and then they grow out of the group, and that’s awesome if we can do that, that’s not a bad thing at all.”

One example of a woman growing out of the group that has especially stuck with Hopkins began when a recently widowed non-member was invited by a member of WOWNet to join a smaller, informal group on a hike. While the purpose of the hike was not strictly to talk about forest management, related topics of course came up. “At the end of [the hike]…she stayed in the parking lot and just started pouring her heart out to me,” Hopkins recalls, “she said ‘my husband just died two years ago, I’ve just been feeling like I’m drowning. I have horses, my husband always did the trees and those were our separate things and now I didn’t know what to do. I thought I was just going to leave it. But now after talking to this group of women, I just feel like I can do this, and I can call this woman or that woman if I need anything.’” Years later, Hopkins still runs into this individual, both at WOWNet events and other mixed-gender forestry events, and is proud to see her as an active participant wherever she is. 

To learn more about all WOWNet has to offer, check out this link: extensionweb.forestry.oregonstate.edu/WOWNet

By Ari Blatt