In 1913, the U.S. Forest Service was still feeling the burn of the destructive fires that consumed nearly 3 million acres of timberland in Montana and Idaho three years earlier. Men were hired as fire fighters and lookouts in an effort to prevent more disastrous fires.
In California’s Klamath National Forest, one of these new hires was unlike any that occurred before. Her name was Hallie Morse Daggett and she was the first female USFS fire lookout. For 15 years at the Eddy Gulch Lookout, Daggett performed a job that required a vigilant eye, perseverance through uncomfortable working conditions and isolation — the station was a three-hour hike from civilization. It was a job only men had done before her.
Many women have followed in Daggett’s pioneering footsteps, pursuing a career in forestry that allows them to get away from the desk and into the woods.
In 1930, Margaret Stoughton Abell became the first female research forester for the USFS. Deanne Shulman became this country’s first female smokejumper in 1981. Elizabeth Estill in 1992 became the first female USFS regional forester when she took the position for the Southern Region. More recently, Louisiana Tech University alumna Lisa Lewis became the forest supervisor of the Kisatchie National Forest this year, only the second woman to hold that post. Gretta Boley was the first, serving from 2002 to 2008.
There’s never been a better time than now to pursue a career in forestry. The Louisiana Tech Forestry Program, for instance, has a rigorous curriculum that teaches students ecological, economical, and social aspects of forestry, and provides them with “in the field” experiences that will be invaluable to them in their future careers. They receive financial assistance from several sources, including the Louisiana Forestry Foundation. The program also has a near 100 percent job placement rate among its graduates.
Despite this, only 15 percent of the students enrolled in Louisiana Tech’s Forestry Program are women. This is similar to a study published by the Journal of Forestry in 2015 that found just 18 percent of forestry students in 67 National Association of University Forest Resource Programs (NAUFRP) are female. So the question arises, with all the opportunities available in forestry, why aren’t more women pursuing it as a career?
Though we have come a long way since Daggett’s time, I believe many girls in today’s society are expected to appear and behave in certain ways. Their hair should be styled and clothes in the latest fashion should be worn. Makeup should be properly applied and fingernails neatly manicured.
If a woman is considered too independent or too opinionated, she risks a tarnished reputation. Thus, many girls today try to fit into a stereotype that could rule out a career in the outdoors.
Growing up, I was very fortunate to have parents who told me I could do anything a boy could do. I was hiking in the woods, climbing trees and playing outside until sunset. I sat beside my father in the woods during turkey season, put up tree stands with my grandfather and fished the banks with my brother.
I learned I could still be a lady when the occasion called for it, but I also had enough grit to get down and dirty when it came time to get a job done. Now, I am an assistant professor in Louisiana Tech’s Forestry Program, the first female to hold such a position in the program.
I would not be where I am today without the guidance and support of my family, showing me that I could do anything as long as I put my mind to it. It is a mentality I now encourage upon the small group of women in the program, hoping they will become role models for other young women as they pursue their future careers. It is also a mentality I encourage upon my own daughter whenever she calls to me from the branches of a tree or shows me the latest insect she found in our backyard.
What I hope is that more and more young women venture out into the woods and discover their true potential. This challenge befalls us now. We must not just tell girls and young women they are capable, but help them believe they are.
Encourage your daughters to go outside and let their curiosity and imagination run wild. Take them on hikes through the woods and let them see everything the forest has to offer. Let them sit beside you on your next hunting trip. Cheer them on as they search for animals and insects, climb up trees and get dirt on their clothes.
Then, when our girls become women, they may consider a career in forestry. Because in the end, they’re going to love it just as much as the guys do.
(Dr. Heidi Adams is a Certified Wildlife Biologist® and an assistant professor of Wildlife Habitat Management in the School of Agricultural Sciences & Forestry at Louisiana Tech University.)