Women of the woods: Inside Berkeley’s forestry program

Madeline Green and Allison Erny practice "buck-sawing" with Cal Logging Sports at the Russell Research Station.
Anya Schultz/Senior Staff
Madeline Green and Allison Erny practice "buck-sawing" with Cal Logging Sports at the Russell Research Station.

“Go bears! Get low! Quicker pulls! Almost there!”

Wood chips fly and cheers fill the air as seniors Madeline Green and Allison Erny take turns pulling a long, jagged saw back and forth across a log. They are trying to cut a cookie (a round slice of wood) as fast as they can. To their right, Justine Zeni, one of Cal Logging Sports’ three captains, gears up her chainsaw. Professor Scott Stephens sits nearby preparing homemade ice cream for the after-practice BBQ.

online chipping

Anya Schultz/Senior Staff

It’s a crisp October Sunday, and Cal Logging Sports is in the forest practicing for an upcoming competition. The team of some 10 students is training under a canopy of Monterey Pines at Russell Research Station, a university-owned property that sits 30 minutes east of campus.

“It feels rewarding to say I chopped a log in half with a heavy axe,” said senior Lilah Gonen. “There’s something very simple about it, but it feels so satisfying.”

The women are learning old-time forestry traditions such as chopping, where participants use an axe to split a log in half. In the spring they will compete in birling, an event in which contestants attempt to balance on a rolling log in water.

Cal Logging Sports, a traditional sport for old-time male loggers, is just one part of UC Berkeley’s forestry and natural resources major. The program is one of only a handful in the state and the most female dominated by far.

“They have more resources and coaches and a lot more burly men,” said Gonen of other forestry programs, such as those at Humboldt State and Cal Poly. “But we have spirit, and we have a lot of fun.”

Berkeley’s forestry program has 32 majors that study the art and science of managing forested landscapes. More than two-thirds of the students are female.

“This isn’t a national trend. It’s something unique here at Berkeley,” said professor Kevin O’Hara, the advisor for the forestry club on campus. “Forestry has been a male-dominated field forever.”

Berkeley’s program, which has been around since 1914, reached an equal gender ratio in the 1980s. Only eight women had graduated from the program before 1965. It has since turned mostly female.

Despite the traditional image of a male lumberjack logging in the forest, the women of the program recognize the value of their trade. A quarter of California is forest, and there are more than 6 million acres in the Sierra Nevada alone that need restoration. After graduation, forestry students will likely work for the U.S. Forest Service or private industry, playing a vital role in managing and protecting the state’s increasingly threatened forested landscapes. Forests are the home to beloved national parks and are the heart and soul of many northern California counties whose primary industry is logging.

online chainsaw

Anya Schultz/Senior Staff

“If you want to build a house, you need us. If you want paper, you need us,” said Green, a forestry student. “If you want toilet paper, you need us. If you want your kids to see forests, you need us.”

The major

Gonen often has to explain her major to fellow students who assume her interest in forests means she wants to be a park ranger. She and her peers study how trees grow, how they operate in forests, how they affect people and how people want to use trees.

The major doesn’t have its own department, in part due to its focus on interdisciplinary knowledge. The students’ curriculum spans from policy and economics to plant biology and taxonomy.

“We focus on the science behind what foresters do,” said professor Joe McBride, who has taught forestry for 44 years. “We are a little less of a ‘how to do it’ school as we are a ‘why to do it’ school.”

Rural schools with forestry programs tend to draw students specifically for their programs, but many students at UC Berkeley end up finding the major after starting college. The campus tends to attract a more urban, progressive population, which could be a contributing factor to the gender makeup of the major.

To compensate for its urban surroundings, the major requires students participate in an eight-week summer field program in the Sierra Nevadas.

Students live in log cabins, and the forest becomes their classroom — they study the surrounding ecology and learn how to take proper forest measurements. The summer culminates with a group project in which the students make a management plan for a 160-acre forest plot.

Back in Berkeley, students and faculty maintain their connection with each other and the outdoors. Classes are often accompanied by field trips to university research stations and students call their professors by their first names. The Forestry Club — the oldest club on campus — holds “Bean Feeds” once a month when students and faculty eat homemade chili outside of Mulford Hall.

A boy’s club

This fall, the forestry program sent a group of students and faculty to the Society of American Foresters Conference in Salt Lake City. The women were an anomaly among the many male students from around the country.

Forestry major Madeline Green poses with a "cookie" she sawed off the log.

Anya Schultz/Senior Staff

“People are always really shocked,” said Gonen. “Everyone knows when Berkeley students are in the room. Everyone wants to hang out with us.”

But it is not always easy being in a male-dominated field. Erny often gets the sense that men assume women are naive when it comes to managing equipment or machinery. At UC Berkeley, Green said its easy to forget that there are prejudices in the field they’ll confront upon graduation.

“We don’t face things here that I’m going to face with the men of this profession,” Green said.

To keep this inclusive atmosphere, students in the major often encourage female underclassmen to join, hoping to reign in the next cohort of women who are passionate about the outdoors.

The big picture

Female or not, students entering the field today are faced with old and new challenges. Forestry as a profession has broadened from managing forests solely for human needs to including a stronger emphasis on sustainability.

The 2013 Rim Fire in the Sierra Nevada forests produced the same amount of greenhouse gas emissions that 2.3 million vehicles would produce in a year, according to a report released by the Sierra Nevada Conservancy this fall. The current climate crisis and a disastrous season of wildfires sends an urgent message for forest management.

“I’m concerned that unless we move now, our grandkids are going to look at forests in a very different way,” said Stephens, a professor of fire science whose research focuses on restoration strategies.

Foresters know how to manage landscapes to reduce the intensity of fires but lack sufficient funding for large restoration projects. Where this money will come from is a question on the minds of professionals in the field — some look to federal legislation while others see revenue from forest products.

According to Stephens, California gets 70 percent of its water from the Sierra Nevada forests, but revenue from the water does not make its way back to preserving forests.

While addressing climate change will be multifaceted, forests can serve as important combatants to increasing levels of carbon dioxide. McBride sees his students, who learn how to design, plant and manage forests, as having a vital role in future managements of forests to increase carbon sequestration.

Despite these impending challenges, McBride and fellow faculty emulate a sense of optimism. Perhaps it’s the 100-year-old legacy, the close spirit of the department or the new wave of women entering the field.

Back at Russell Research Station, Green reflects on the tradition.

“I feel connected to the old men who did this 100 years ago,” she says.

She straps on her metal shoecovers, grabs her axe and stands up on a log.

“And it’s really badass.”

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  • ForestRanger

    Go Bears! Love it. Glad to see the tradition continue!

  • Lizzie Ebert

    Way to go ladies! So happy this article was written! And I want some of Scott’s homemade ice cream…

  • Valerie Grant

    Go bears!

  • Valerie Grant

    Go bears!

  • Jade Francisa

    This is dope! :)

  • Meredith

    Love this, and so grateful to have been a part of this amazing tradition and program.