Meet the women on the frontlines of Oregon’s timber industry
Two young high school girls in hickory shirts and chaps tugged back and forth on a crosscut saw. Their faces were pink and gleaming with sweat as they cut through a 20-inch-thick log. They each held one side of the six-foot-long saw with two hands and a grip so tight their fingertips turned white. Squatting in a wide-legged stance, Lace-Anna Shiffart’s long ponytail swinging back and forth, the two girls pushed and pulled until the thick slice of wood fell to the ground.
A nearby man watching commented, “It’s a girl, wow!” The man next to him responded, “Yeah, it happens.”
Shiffart, 17 and Denae Pennington, 16, are in the Sweet Home High School forestry club. The young girls, like many other high school students, were practicing a variety of timber events, such as sawing and choker-setting, at the Oregon Logging Conference in Eugene, Oregon.
In a sector where land, jobs and culture are often passed down in the family, women have always been a part of the timber industry as wives or daughters. Yet in 2015, just 15 percent of foresters in the United States were women, according to Leslie Weldon, Deputy Chief of the National Forest System.
Being the minority in a male-dominated field, women continue to have to fight for their place among the men and create a space that is inclusive and empowering to the young women who may enter these careers after them.
Lindsay Reaves, co-owner of Bauman Tree Farm, married a third-generation tree farmer and began her career in small woodland management a little over 10 years ago. She spends her days without internet access hiking the hills of their tree farm in work boots, occasionally with her chain saw in hand.
Logging, timber and forests have always been a part of Reaves’ life, even before managing a tree farm. She remembers as a young child watching log trucks go up and down the highway in southern Oregon.
“Growing up in Douglas fir forests all my life, there’s almost a, pardon the pun, rootedness of belonging in this industry and culture of logging,” said Reaves. “That belongingness feels very ingrained in my body and in my psyche.”
Reaves recently attended the Oregon Logging Conference, which has been occurring annually since 1938. Trucks filled the nearby fields and parking lots, and inside the fairgrounds, swarms of men in plaid clustered around the equipment displays.
“When I was at the conference this last week I bought a chain saw bag and the first thing the guy asked me was, ‘You own a chain saw?’ and I was like, ‘Yeah, and I can actually run it as well,’” said Reaves.
Reaves was annoyed by the comment, but isn’t afraid to speak up when she feels it’s necessary.
“The male perceptions of women in the culture are changing, but every once in a while I feel like I have to be very proactively confrontive, and that part does not make me feel like I belong,” said Reaves.
Amanda Astor, a 25-year-old Southwest Oregon field forester for the nonprofit American Foresters Resource Council, also grew up among trees. For her, this took the form of recreation in the Northwoods of Michigan, eventually finding her way to the Pacific Northwest.
Astor wears a constant smile on her face when talking about her job. Each week she splits her time between the office and the forest, the latter being her favorite part.
“I got so lucky with this job, man, the universe was looking out for me I swear,” said Astor.
In an effort to increase diversity and inclusion in the forest sector, the U.S. Forest Service started a civil rights action group across the nation. During her previous job in Michigan, Astor was the representative for the LGBT community there.
“I’m pansexual and I lived in a very small community of just a few thousand people. It was kind of closed off, people had their opinions,” said Astor. “As somebody who comes from that type of background and sexuality, I would have very frank and honest conversations with my co-workers about what I’ve experienced in my life and who I am.”
Astor feels strongly about the importance of challenging herself and others, both in her experience with diversity in sexuality in the forest sector, and with other forms of diversity, such as in gender or age. She believes that in order to grow you need to be challenged by somebody else’s views or culture, and when everybody grows there are better outcomes and more inclusivity.
“I want to empower young ladies to go into this profession,” said Astor. “It’s so much more than just cutting down the tree and making the product. Forestry is really encompassing with a lot of different resources, it’s a melding of all these different things.”
For Amanda Rau, cutting down trees is the most exciting part of the job and her personal specialty. Rau, too, was a child of timber. Her dad was a mill mechanic and later a firefighting equipment manufacturer, and she has been going to her extended family’s tree farm from a young age.
Rau was a college student when she began looking for a summer job.
“Some friends of mine who are women had actually gone out to work on fire crews. They came back with these awesome boots and were strong and confident and I was inspired,” she said. “I was like ‘What’s that? Where are they getting that? I want some of it.’”
So, in 1999, she got trained and signed up to work on a contract crew and absolutely loved it.
The physically challenging experience of working outdoors, combined with her fascination with nature and how disturbances impact the natural environment, led her to continue firefighting after earning her degree.
When she went to get chain saw-certified for the first time, she walked up to an older man who was a professional timber faller brought in from the private industry.
“He looks at me and he goes, ‘How many trees have you fallen?’ and I said, ‘I don’t know, hundreds, maybe thousands,’ and he said, ‘OK, I was just wondering cause I’ve never had a woman try to certify with me before,’ and I said, ‘OK well let’s do this,’” said Rau.
He gave her a saw with a 42-inch bar on it and an even bigger tree. She cut out two triangle-shaped pieces halfway through the trunk at a downward angle. Then she cut into the trunk from the opposite side, controlling where the tree fell. It was a perfect Humboldt face cut.
“I put the tree exactly where I wanted it. Everything was perfect and he was just blown away. He called all the guys down the hill and said, ‘That’s what this is supposed to look like,’ and I was like, ‘Whoa, OK, cool,’” said Rau.
She wasn’t trying to prove anything. In fact, Rau thought she might not pass that day.
Rau now has the highest level of certification as a faller, an accomplishment not many women have achieved. Timber-oriented work came to her through fire, but she’s taken these skills out to her family’s tree farm where she scales logs and sends them off on trucks to the mill. Rau also hosts classes to mentor and certify other fallers.
Rau noticed that firefighters are often stereotyped as heroic strong men, making it difficult for anyone who does not see themselves like that to feel like they belong. She doesn’t believe that men and women are born with natural inclinations to do some things and not others, but rather this perception is a cultural development that’s ingrained in children.
“I think it starts very young, whether it’s referring to firefighters as “firemen,” or not ever seeing themselves as an adult in those fire clothes or in that timber gear,” said Rau. “Girls don’t see themselves in the hard hat, they don’t see themselves in the hickory shirt, so they just kind of go, ‘That’s not for me.’ If you don’t grow up looking at those folks as your heroes, then you don’t even know that’s an option.”
The ideal future in Rau’s mind is one in which ‘women in fire’ or ‘women in timber’ isn’t a thing anymore because they are just humans doing the work.
Jill Bell, a forest engineer and daughter of a logger, goes to work to do work and doesn’t see herself as any different from her male counterparts. She wasn’t raised any differently; she did the same things as her brother, like splitting firewood, bucking hay and moving irrigation pipes. She wants to be respected for her technical skills, not her gender.
When Bell was deciding whether to take on the job as one of 16 area managers for the timber company Weyerhaeuser, she and her husband had a lot to consider. The job would move Bell from Estacada to Springfield, but in the end, they decided it was worth it.
“We speculated that I was the only woman getting the job offer and I wanted to make a statement and be a role model for other women,” said Bell. “It’s important for the younger generation to know that these jobs are obtainable because in the past it’s always been viewed that they’re not obtainable for a female.”
Shiffart, who is now a senior at Sweet Home High School, is hoping to pursue a five-year dual forest engineering and civil engineering degree at Oregon State University after graduation. Until then, she will continue to compete for her third season with her high school forestry club, which now has more girls than boys—a huge shift from even a decade ago, according to former forestry club adviser Dustin Nichol.
Girls like Shiffart are following in the footsteps of women like Bell, Rau, Astor and Reaves, adding their unique and important voices to the timber industry.