Who Runs the Forest? Increasingly, in the Southeast, It’s Women

New groups are cultivating communities of women who manage their trees with economic and ecosystem sustainability in mind.
A group of nine people stand in front of a small wooden building surrounded by forest on a sunny day.
At a ForestHer NC gathering at Plaster’s Tree farm in May, participants toured fire-maintained loblolly pine stands, stopping often to identify birds. Photo: Candra Burns, Talking Forests

Men have historically overseen most forest management in the southeastern United States, where the vast majority of woodlands are privately owned. As more women are inheriting or purchasing land for the first time, demographics are changing. But navigating the male-oriented world of forestry can be difficult and overwhelming for women who are newcomers, as a recent study from the University of Georgia found.

That’s why nine forestry professionals in North Carolina formed ForestHer NC in 2019. The group holds workshops on topics ranging from prescribed burns to bird identification to property taxes, attracting about 3,000 participants so far. Their goal is to empower women by offering education and community; nonbinary people, men who feel shut out by traditional forestry culture, and families are also welcome. “There’s definitely a component of ‘Well, if they can do it, I can do it,’” says Audubon North Carolina conservation biologist Aimee Tomcho, one of the cofounders.

With guidance from ForestHer NC and other experts, Michele Riggsbee has worked to improve her 40 acres of woodlands as habitat for birds such as Indigo Buntings and Pileated Woodpeckers. The camaraderie has also been meaningful: “It was so nice to meet other women that were learning and growing just like I was.”

Elsewhere, women are launching similar projects, including an unrelated ForestHER program in Alabama, Land and Ladies in Georgia, and Women Owning Woodlands, which curates resources nationwide. All also aim to help women effectively earn income from their land: Too often the alternative is selling land to developers, leading to a larger loss of wildlife habitat. “Management, conservation, income production: You need them all to be going on at the same time for a healthy, sustainable forest,” says Danielle Atkins, who started Land and Ladies in 2020.

Done responsibly, logging is an effective conservation tool.

Done responsibly, logging is an effective conservation tool, says Atkins. It reduces a forest’s risk of disease, insect infestations, and extreme wildfires. She also educates landowners about atypical income opportunities, such as selling leases to hunters or birders or installing cell phone towers. Similarly, an upcoming ForestHer NC program will focus on generating income through carbon credits.

As more women manage land, birds may benefit. Traditional forestry favors intensive methods like clear-cutting. In general, Tomcho finds that women are more open to non-traditional strategies that place a higher value on conservation and aesthetic enjoyment. “I do think that women have the power to change the way that forestry is done, particularly in the Southeast,” she says.

Birds are a valuable guide when balancing traditional approaches to logging with ecology-minded habitat management, she says. She’s hosted workshops through both ForestHer NC as well as Audubon North Carolina to educate landowners on learning about their forests through birds. Most foresters would use technical measurements and various instruments to quantify the timber in a patch of forest—but if you know how to listen to the birds, Tomcho says, they’ll tell you everything you need to know.

This story originally ran in the Fall 2022 issue as “Branching Out.” To receive our print magazine, become a member by making a donation today.