When Nancy Baker was in sixth grade, she knew exactly what she wanted to be when she grew up: a forester. She had spent every Christmas, summer and most weekends visiting her family’s land in Bradford County, Pennsylvania, and would follow in her father’s footsteps—literally—as they roamed the woods.
But when a guidance counselor asked her what she wanted to be, “forester” turned out not to be an acceptable answer. “She said, ‘Nancy, girls can’t be foresters,’” Baker remembers. “And I was crestfallen—I was just crushed.”
“I went home and I told my dad… that I couldn’t be a forester,” Baker recalls. “And he said, ‘You can be anything you want to be.’”
So that’s exactly what she did. Baker is now a forest ecologist, and for close to 40 years she has owned the 163 acres she grew up visiting (the land has now been in her family for more than 150 years). She’s the former president of the Bradford-Sullivan Forest Landowners’ Association, part of Pennsylvania’s Forest Stewardship Steering Committee and one of the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay’s Chesapeake Forest Champions. She’s also a leader in the Women and Their Woods initiative: a program to connect women forest landowners in northeastern Pennsylvania and teach them the skills and confidence they need to care for their forests.
According to the most recent National Woodland Owner Survey, 21 percent of forest landowners are women. Whether through outliving their spouses, inheriting property or outright purchasing land, more and more women are becoming primary owners of forests. But a study by the National Association of State Foresters showed that, while 83 percent of women who inherit forestland were interested in managing it, only 34 percent felt they had enough knowledge to make informed decisions.
That’s where Women and Their Woods comes in. Whether the women have received their land through the passing of a husband, by inheritance or after purchasing it themselves, participants can access the knowledge and resources to feel confident in caring for their forests. At meetings, women forest landowners can connect, share knowledge, meet with experts and ask questions. The program also hosts four-day retreats full of hands-on activities that teach the women how to manage their forestland.
“I think there are a lot of women who—the window sort of opens for them, and it’s no longer just a green place out there,” Baker says. “It actually begins to make sense to them.”
It’s the hands-on experience that Baker feels the women might not get enough of otherwise. “Gentlemen are so nice to do things for us that we never learn ourselves,” she laughs. “As soon as you say, help me cut this off, the guy will just—not being intentionally mean or anything—they’ll just pick up the chainsaw and be very nice to you and cut it right off. And you’re standing there and you don’t get the experience.”
But chainsaws, herbicide sprayers, ATVs and even propane torches (“We almost took the eyebrows off somebody,” Baker jokes) are all fair game at the Women and Their Woods meetings. Attendees also learn how to identify plants and trees, how to measure a tree and how to talk to a forester: what questions to ask and what different terms mean.
Although some participants may be looking to learn how to garner the most income from their forests, research has shown that women tend to be far less interested in the economic value of their land. Instead, they tend to focus on its aesthetic, recreational and peace of mind values. Women and Their Woods teaches them how to care for their forest land as an ecosystem, giving them the skills they need so that, should they decide to focus on its economic returns, they can do so in a sustainable way.
Since Women and Their Woods began in 2008, about 80 women have gone through the program. Funding and support comes from several partners, including Delaware Highlands Conservancy, the USDA Forest Service at Grey Towers, Penn State University Natural Resources Extension and the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR).
On her own land, Baker works with her consulting forester to manage the health of her forest. A few fields, once cleared by her grandfather and great-grandfather, she keeps open. Otherwise, with Baker keeping a careful eye and stepping in where needed, the forest is free to take over. The two streams running along her property—Crane Creek and Panther Lick—have buffers growing alongside them that haven’t been cut since the late 1800s.
Slowly, the makeup of her forest has changed, whether through Baker’s careful management or through circumstances beyond her control, like disease, pests and climate change. Areas once home to ash trees have fallen prey to the invasive Emerald Ash Borer, leaving only a smattering of the trees standing. And while Baker could salvage and sell what timber is left, she prefers to let nature take its course: “My neighbors say, ‘Nancy, it’s all going to waste!’ No, it’s not going to waste. It’s being recycled.”
Years ago, Baker traveled to a conference on fire ecology—the study of wildland fire and its relationship to the environment. In attendance: 171 men and her. Today, Pennsylvania is home to a small but growing professional group of women foresters, many of whom lend their expertise to Women and Their Woods.
To Baker, this network of support is one of the most vital pieces of the program. “That’s the major thing that comes out of it, is that they do not feel alone anymore,” she says. “They have somebody that they can reach out to.”
To see more photos, visit the Chesapeake Bay Program’s Flickr page.
Photos by Will Parson
Looking at Bob Ingersoll’s farm, you’d never know that he had been growing hay for over 15 years. The fields that had produced hay—and corn before that—are now covered in native grasses and wildflowers. Last year, Ingersoll enrolled his almost 60-acre farm in Chestertown, Maryland, into the Washington College Center for Environment and Society’s (CES) Natural Lands Project.
This September morning, Ingersoll and Natural Lands Project Coordinator Dan Small walk around Ingersoll’s fields, observing the growth and pointing out the different species of wildflowers and grasses they planted only five months earlier.
Ingersoll got involved with the Natural Lands Project through the Chester River Association, one of the project’s sponsors. While he chose to enroll his entire farm, CES typically works with farmers and landowners to plant 100-foot grassland buffers on their land. That way, they can still get money from agricultural production and rented-out land for hunting—as well as a small income from the Natural Lands Project—but also sow the benefits of grassland buffers.
These buffers are known as a best management practice, or BMP, because they can absorb nutrients that run off of farm fields and prevent sediment from entering waterways. But alongside their water quality benefits, buffers can also provide ideal habitat for many species of animals.
Quail and habitat restoration
A large component of the Natural Lands Project is creating suitable grassland habitat for northern bobwhite quail. Quail used to be prevalent on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, and many people in the area grew up hunting quail, but their populations have declined drastically since the mid-1900s—due in part to habitat loss.
When it comes to installing grassland buffers, Small says, “we found that there’s no real tangible benefit to the landowners or farmers if we just talk about water quality on the land.” However, if they grew up hunting quail, they have an emotional connection to the bird.
Quail require three types of habitat to be successful: open areas, grassy cover and woody cover. “We’re specifically looking to create warm season grass habitat,” says Small. Cool season grasses, like those typically found on lawns, grow thick—meaning small grassland birds like quail that require open ground can’t move through them. “Think of your lawn,” he says. “If that grew up, there’s no way a quail could walk through that.” Warm season grasses, on the other hand, grow in clumps, leaving plenty of space for quail.
One of the factors associated with the decline in quail populations is the lack of woody cover. The disappearance of hedgerows—a row of shrubs or low growing trees that typically form boundaries between farm fields—has had a huge impact on quail, according to Small. As farms got larger, those hedgerows were taken out, and quail lost an important place to go during the winter when the rest of the landscape is covered in snow.
For that reason, dispersed throughout the grasses and wildflowers, are colored markers labeling where they planted hedgerows. “Not only are we adding nesting habitat in all the grass, but we need to add winter habitat as well.”
Creating habitat suited for quail doesn’t just benefit them, but many other species as well. “We have a lot more small birds here than we did any year that I can ever remember, because there’s something there for them to eat,” says Ingersoll. “And butterflies! I’ve never ever seen so many butterflies.” He points out bees and finds a fuzzy caterpillar on one of the wildflowers. Small points out the call of a bobolink, a bird that requires grasslands on its migration. Even deer take advantage of the tall grass cover, as evidenced by the imprint from where a deer had been lying not too long before.
A long-term commitment
It takes about three years for the grasses to get established, but once that happens, they still need to be managed. “You can’t just put it in and walk away,” says Small. After they’re established, they will be managed in part through controlled burns. As the grasses grow, they begin to lay down on top of each other, making it difficult for the quail to move on the ground. “Controlled fire is a really good method to wipe the slate clean,” says Small. “You don’t really hurt the native [plants] because they can respond to that and pop back up.”
Landowners who enroll in the Natural Lands Project sign a 10-year contact with CES. This long-term commitment is a promise both to CES that there is sufficient time committed to establish habitat on the land, but also to the landowner that CES won’t plant the new habitat and then leave. They work with landowners over that time to make sure that the land is in good condition.
“The landowner, somebody like myself, is relying on the best information I can get from Dan to make this as successful as I possibly can,” says Ingersoll. “If we didn’t have the backup, it’d be like learning it all over again. And I probably wouldn’t have done it.”
Text by Joan Smedinghoff
Photos and captions by Leslie Boorhem-Stephenson
Video by Will Parson
Trees and shrubs planted along the shores of the rivers, streams and creeks that flow into the Chesapeake Bay play a key role in improving water quality in the region. But according to Chesapeake Bay Program experts, the rate of plantings has continued to decline. Between July 2014 and June 2015, about 64 miles of forest buffers were planted along creeks and streams in the Bay watershed. While this marks movement toward the outcome, it remains below the 900-mile-per-year goal.
Streamside trees and shrubs—called riparian forest buffers—provide a multitude of environmental benefits. They reduce erosion from stream banks, prevent nutrients and other pollution from entering waterways, provide food and habitat to wildlife and keep stream temperatures cool and consistent, benefiting brook trout and other sensitive species that thrive in cooler temperatures. Because of their ability to efficiently trap and filter pollutants carried by stormwater runoff, forest buffers are considered one of the most cost-effective best management practices.
More than 8,000 miles of forest buffers have been restored across the watershed since 1996, but recent years have seen a sharp decline in the planting rate. In 2010, watershed states planted 359 miles of forest buffers—nearly 40 percent of the 900 mile-per-year goal. But in 2015, the entire watershed planted just seven percent of the annual target.
Many complicated factors have affected the restoration of forest buffers, including a lack of coordination among agencies, underutilized funding programs and insufficient information and assistance for farmers and landowners. To meet these challenges, partners across the region, facilitated by forestry experts at the Bay Program, are working to better coordinate on the delivery of buffer programs by federal, state and local agencies; align opportunities to restore forest buffer programs with compatible land management programs; and enhance existing forest buffer programs to make them more appealing to landowners.
In 2007, Chesapeake Bay watershed states committed to restoring 900 miles of forest buffers per year—a rate that was incorporated into the 2010 Chesapeake Bay Executive Order, which calls for a total of 14,400 miles to be restored by 2025. As part of the 2014 Chesapeake Bay Watershed Agreement, the states reaffirmed the 900-mile-per-year goal and committed to restoring and conserving existing buffers until at least 70 percent of streamside areas in the watershed are forested.
Learn more about the Bay Program’s work to restore forest buffers.