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Environment & Energy

Women Take Charge of Their Woods

Nancy Baker stands in the pantry of her farmhouse in Bradford County. It's layered in family history, from the floorboards up. "All the woodwork trim in this old part of the house is American Chestnut. My mother had it painted white, it looks very nice, but I like the chestnut," says Baker.

Like some Pennsylvania forest owners, Baker inherited the family home and the acres of forest land that came with it. But unlike many women woodland owners, she isn't intimidated by it: she's a retired forest ecologist.

Baker explains how an idea for a network of Pennsylvania female forest owners got started at a landowners meeting. "The men would talk about the woods and what they wanted to do with their woods and the woman sitting right next to her partner would say, 'I'm with him.'"

But at a presentation for women landowners, Baker says it was a different story. "We could not get them to stop talking. They were just bubbling over. So I thought, 'Uh oh, we're not meeting the needs of the women.'"

Baker is hoping all that will change with the Women and Their Woods program. In mid-October 22 women from 12 Pennsylvania counties, and a few from New York and West Virginia, participated in a four-day forest owners retreat in Lycoming County. It's like an all-girls camp for women of a certain age. The average age for forest landowners is around 60.

In the vaulted timber lodge, Debra Takach of Perry County draws a map on a sheet of large white butcher paper of her 58 acres, and what she'd like to see there. It's an exercise to get at how the women value their land.

"I'm drawing a picture of a turtle," says Takach. "That's one thing that I've noticed is that the turtles are disappearing, and I'd like to make sure that they have a place to go where they can be safe in the future."

Takach wants to create more wildlife habitat on her land. And she wants to get kids on her property for nature walks. Takach is a retired school teacher but her husband still works, so she's taking on these projects herself for now.

The women are also learning practical skills to help make future decisions about their land.

Outside the lodge, under a pavilion, Jane Swift, an educator with the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, walks the women through tree identification.

"It's going to say the leaves or needles are scale-like, or are the leaves broad and flat? Which statement is true? Broad and flat, okay," says Swift.

Swift says the point of this exercise is that you have to know what you've got before you can decide what to do with it. Adrienne Hamilton looks at sort of a buffet table set with dozens of differently shaped leaves.

She explains, "I don't have oaks, but I have hickory. I have sweet gum. It's a relatively large stand."

Hamilton has been widowed for 6 years, and makes all the decisions for her 58 acres. She says as a woman she's experienced communication barriers with forest professionals. "They have a certain role, they see their role in a certain way with their clients. It can be challenging."

Hamilton says even living alone in the country can be a challenge. She's had to sue a neighbor for building on her forest land.

"I don't know that if my husband were alive he might have done that," she said.

Cecile Stelter, a Pennsylvania state forester, isn't surprised. Rigid gender roles, she says, aren't rare in her work with private landowners.

"A lot of times when we go out with landowners, the wife won't even go along, which is a shame because the wife can have a lot of input. They'll notice different things," Stelter said.

Stelter says women can create a more complete picture for forest professionals, if they have the language to articulate it. And if they aren't afraid to speak up. That's crucial when it comes to making the big decisions that face forest landowners, like if and when to sell the timber from their land, or if they should sign a gas lease.

Jim Finley is a forest resources professor at Penn State University. He holds a Biltmore stick at arm's length — a long wooden ruler with specialized markings that help determine the diameter of a tree, and the value of potential logs.

"What we've got marked on this tree is what … Diameter Breast Height?" states Finley. "So just go up there and find out where it is … You're larynx high."

A women forest owner chines in, "Well, that would have been me at 24."

Finley and the women trade jokes, but it's not all fun and games. "A lot of people sort of sell trees without any understanding of what they're looking at, and they get taken all the time," says Finley. "When that knock comes at the door and someone says, 'I want to buy your trees,' they should have some idea how to establish the value."

Later, warming up inside the lodge, Fran Wunderlich of Tioga County says she'll feel more prepared if that day comes.

"When a forester comes to my property now I know when he says, 'I'll give you so much per board foot Doyle method,' and I'm going to say to him, 'Excuse me, but could you please rescale that to the international scale?' So that I can sort of scare him that I have a little bit of knowledge and he can't pull a fast one on me. I can't wait to say it," Wunderlich said.

Organizers are counting on the women participating in this retreat to take back that knowledge and the excitement of sharing and branch out with their own regional women's groups. That could be critical for Pennsylvania's forests.

44,000 acres of Pennsylvania forests are lost each year, mostly to development. A 2005 study suggests that future women forest owners are more interested in keeping forests intact and value legacy more than their male counterparts. Because women live longer than men, it's more likely that women will pass on their land.

Trish Engelhard agrees. She owns 78 acres on the Pennsylvania New York border, and her daughter really wanted her to hold onto it when Engelhard divorced.

"We all have a connection to care-taking and nurturing," says Engelhard. "We're at an age and we still care and we want to care-take. We want to leave it to the next generations in a healthier state. And I get all teary about it, too, because we care and this is our home."