From left, Julie Davenport, Kate Locke and Paulina Murray listen as Molly London, consulting forester, and Sarah Robinson, executive director of Piscataquis County Soil and Water Conservation District, lead a field tour of Williamsburg Forest last week. The tour was part of a Maine forest climate change series put on by University of Maine Center for Research on Sustainable Forests. The Williamsburg Forest is managed by a team comprised of all women. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

WILLIAMSBURG — Williamsburg Forest is a remote community-owned woodland revitalized and run completely by women.

The initial group that decided to rescue a down-on-its-luck demonstration forest did not plan it this way. They were just foresters and conservationists who happened to be women. And when they asked for help from their professional networks, other women in this traditionally male field answered.

Now women pick which trees to cut, which rules to enforce and signs to post, and which classes to hold.

“It happened very organically,” said Sarah Robinson, the head of the Piscataquis County Soil and Water Conservation District, which owns the land. “It’s pretty unique. I think we’ve created a niche that aligns with our progressive management ideas and gives our community what it wants.”

Robinson and Molly London, a commercial forester from Milo who helped write the management plan, told their story while leading a tour of Williamsburg Forest for the University of Maine’s Forest Climate Change Initiative. The tour was titled “Women’s Approach to Forest Climate Adaptation.”

They are managing the 180-acre community forest near Brownville using research on what appeals to women: they post interpretive signs, allow off-leash dogs and ensure cellphone reception to make solo female hikers feel safer, and teach women-only classes to promote woodland skills like chainsaw safety.


“Piscataquis is the most heavily forested county in the most heavily forested state, but a lot of people in our community, a lot of women, still don’t feel comfortable out in the woods,” London said, sitting on a log by a Pleasant River tributary during a break in the tour. “We want to fix that.”

Molly London leads a field tour of Williamsburg Forest last week. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

For the doubters, London notes the chainsaw classes usually sell out and almost always have waitlists. Many of the women who attend are older widows who want to learn how to take care of their land after the death of a spouse, she said. The classes empower the women and help the private woodlots prosper.

“A lot of women, myself included, feel like it’s easier to ask a question in front of a group of women than men, especially older male foresters,” Robinson said. “Nobody wants to look stupid. Women seem to be more forgiving. I can ask them my stupid questions and nobody judges.”

They are also preparing for a warmer, wetter future by thinning stands of a single tree species to reduce the spread and damage of warm-weather blight or invaders. They replace old undersized culverts so the heavy rains predicted in the future won’t wash out the forest roads. They favor fuel-efficient equipment.

They consider what is happening beyond their property borders before making decisions. Some of their neighbors, for example, have aggressively logged their woods. As a result, the district has cut fewer trees to offset its neighbor’s overharvest and ensure adequate habitat for tree-dwelling birds.

A group of foresters and other people in the industry hike in Williamsburg Forest during a tour last week. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

These adaptations are straight-up climate science. But the way the women settled on these adaptation and mitigation strategies – through consensus building and collaboration rather than a traditional top-down leadership structure – is straight out of a textbook on female leadership styles.


One of the hallmarks of the group? Brainstorming sessions about what they wanted to do with the land held while touring the property that over time became known as “ladies walks n’ talks” after a neighbor who saw them pointed out that their entire group was made up of women.


The issue of gender has become a hot topic in the field of climate studies. Research shows that climate change does not affect women and men equally, with women suffering disproportionate impacts – U.S. women included – while also experiencing underrepresentation in climate decision-making.

For example, new research shows the rate of pregnancy complications and newborn health problems in the U.S. rises sharply during heatwaves. And women who flee their homes due to extreme weather, such as Hurricane Katrina, face increased risk of domestic violence, sexual assault, job loss and poverty.

Carolyn Ziegra, left in red flannel, and Nicole Rogers, right, talk with Molly London, consulting forester, and Sarah Robinson, executive director of the Piscataquis County Soil and Water Conservation District. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Women dominate the climate conversation in Maine. Maine’s first female governor, Janet Mills, formed the Maine Climate Council, which is run by two women, former House Speaker Hannah Pingree and the commissioner of the Maine Department of Environmental Protection, Melanie Loyzim.

Yet the arm of the Maine Climate Council that is investigating equity issues has not paid any attention to whether climate change is impacting Maine women more than men, in what ways, or how the mitigation and adaptation strategies it is recommending could be amended to appeal more to women.


The council’s data on climate vulnerability among different Maine demographics doesn’t break down the findings by gender, but Pingree said other factors, like age, income and household status might serve as a stand-in for gender under certain circumstances, much like they do for race.

“We know disadvantaged populations – the poor, the elderly, people of color – face more adverse impacts from climate, and in Maine, women make up the majority of those groups,” Pingree said. “I wouldn’t say we spend a ton of time thinking about just women, but we think a lot about how to reach those groups.”

Sarah Robinson, executive director of the Piscataquis County Soil and Water Conservation District, leads a field tour of Williamsburg Forest last week. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Robinson took the job as soil and water district director six years ago. She had no shortage of things to do, but the overgrown trails, missing signage, and poorly marked boundaries of the old Demonstration Forest in Williamsburg Township near Brownville seemed to cry out for attention.

The property was once farmed by homesteaders who abandoned it during the Great Depression. Fields gave way to forests full of thirsty hemlocks, tamaracks and pines fed by Pleasant River streams, but the old stone walls that edged the long-ago crops remain.

The U.S. Forest Service acquired the forest in the 1940s and used it as a living laboratory to try out new management strategies and share them with nearby landowners, many of whom were caring for woods of their own. The conservation district acquired it in 1980 and used it as a teaching forest.

Under Robinson’s leadership, the woodland got a new name, but it remains a teaching forest: it teaches women woodlot owners how to manage their land, teaches women to enjoy the woods on their own, and teaches men and women alike what women can contribute to the field of forestry.



It hasn’t always been easy. Robinson said she was fired by the chairman of the conservation district’s board only six months into her job because her collaborative decision-making style clashed with his top-down approach.

She fought the termination, which had been made without board debate or a vote, and won her job back.

Elisa Schine, left, and Molly London, consulting forester, wrap up the field tour. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer


At the back of the tour group, Roger Merchant, a retired forester and associate professor at the UMaine Extension Service, quickly applauded the management style. During a break, Merchant talked about how different it was from his experience coming up as a forester in the ’70s and ’80s.

“So much of what you’re doing is about relationships,” Merchant said. “That wasn’t what it was like for me, at all. Back in my days, it was just me, one guy, hiking around the forest, making the best decisions that I could … it was a very solitary job.”


The women of Williamsburg Forest left Merchant excited about the future of his former profession.

The collaborative, relationship-based approach to solving problems will be needed to help Maine adapt to the climate changes looming due to the increase in heat-trapping emissions, said Aaron Weiskittel, a UMaine forestry professor and the director of the Center for Research on Sustainable Forests.

Like others on the tour, he worried about using gender labels, but he said certain differences stood out.

“What struck me was the women’s open discussions, creating support for each other, and always seeking inclusive collaboration or partnerships,” Weiskittel said. “Adapting to climate change will require this type of thinking, and having women lead and meaningfully contribute to the challenge is needed.”

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or login first for digital access. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.