Women Owning Woodlands: Southeast Ohio

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Image of the Southeast Ohio chapter of Women Owning Woodlands. There is a grey outline of the state of Ohio with a stylized green tree and orange text. The text is horizontal and the tree covers a large portion of the state.

Women Owning Woodlands (WOW) is a collaborative organization bringing together National Woodland Owners Association (NWOA) and the USDA Forest Service, Cooperative Forestry Office. The almost 40-year-old organization has affiliate members in all 50 states. The combination of these programs together brings “landowners through the commitments of state forestry agencies that combine federal and state resources to benefit the people and land of their states.” 

The Southeast Ohio Chapter of the Women Owning Woodlands Network was formed by a collaborative group of University Extension professionals and local groups of women woodland owners who shared several goals related to land management: 

• Recognize the growing number of women taking a wide array of active woodland management roles. 

• Raise basic forestry and decision-making skills through hands-on activities. 

• Support and increase women’s access to forestry-related information and encouraging communication through state and local networks.  

The Southeast Ohio chapter of WOW serves landowners, environmental professionals, and nature enthusiasts in a range of counties. They work closely with the Northeast Ohio chapter, but serve regional land needs more directly. Local chapter partners include Central State University Extension, Hocking Soil and Water Conservation District, ODNR’s Division of Forestry, Rural Action, and Ohio State University Extension. They offer both in person meetings and webinars (COVID-19 has restricted them to only webinars currently) focusing on a range of topics including NRCS’ Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) practices, tree identification, and non-timber forest products (NTFPs). They also offer more social events for community building and networking. The topics shared at WOW events are community-driven and open to anyone interested in developing a better relationship with their land. 

 

Through our conversations with members of WOW, we learned women often do not feel they have the space to discuss land management goals and practices in existing environmental stewardship spaces. WOW provides individualized support to its members, providing a community and network of enthusiasts and professionals who care about managing their land equitably and sustainably. They want to demystify land management for women owners.

 

Placemaking in Southeast Ohio

Image of Valerie Scott, a light skinned middle-aged woman, next to a large tree on her property. She is wearing a purple jacket and hood and holding a hiking pole while she leans on the large tree. The original image name indicates that this is the largest tree on her property in Hocking County.
Valerie Scott next to a large tree on her property, which she indicated was the largest her property in Hocking County.

As a project with the Ohio Field School and the Center for Folklore studies at the Ohio State University, Women Owning Woodlands (WOW) provides a unique perspective on the role of placemaking in Southeast Ohio. As a community focused on providing services to an underrepresented community in the field of forestry and natural resources, WOW is dedicated to helping people connect to their land through improving land-management practices and increasing knowledge and confidence in women who choose an active role in land stewardship. These practices of care demonstrated through land maintenance, spending time and energy on assisting the land creates stronger bonds and a sense of place for women in Southeast Ohio.  

WOW is an organization that provides women with a comfortable space to ask questions and share concerns regarding land management. Zahra and Daisy asked Molly if she had stories to share with them about the connection between her gender identity and land management and farming. She mentioned that even though she found herself working in a male-dominant space and all her mentors were men, and they generously guided her in performing these activities. Nonetheless, she told a story about a time when she wanted to buy calves where the male calf salesman over the phone communicated that she was “like not what he was expecting” based on the sound of her voice, and clarified that she, a woman, was interested in purchasing the calves herself.  WOW serves an important role in this community in SE Ohio because of the need for women to connect and share with each other about their land management practices and increase representation and confidence for women in land management roles. This regional community of women who share a common interest in understanding, relating to, and managing the land around them exemplifies the strengthening connections and expressions of “making place” in SE Ohio.  

 

Issues of Translation Across WOW

During our interview with Valerie Scott, we explored the idea of translating subject-specific language across communities. There is often a divide in organizations between academic or other specialized careers, and when this knowledge is shared between groups, it can be assumed that community partners may already understand what these terms mean. This can lead to part of the group feeling alienated or not interested in reaching out for assistance. Val’s first experience attending an event with WOW initially led to her feeling misunderstood and alienated because of her lack of knowledge about forestry and land management. When Val shared these feelings openly with the discussion leader, Jaime Dahl, she was able to receive more direct assistance which helped her better understand the language around environmental stewardship that could benefit her land management goals. Val describes this experience below:  

 

“The individuals... most of them were from like the forestry group, and some of the different government agencies and they talked about what your forest, how are you manage your forest, how are you doing this and so… because I’m a newbie in the whole area I finally and I’m not bashful I opened my mouth at one of the meetings and said, “This sounds all great and wonderful, what you're doing, but I don't manage my forest to for sustainability, where I'm cutting trees down and selling them for lumber I want to manage it, so that the forest continues to grow,” so that it's always there for enjoyment of nature, I said, “How do I start there?” and it triggered, [a conversation with] Jamie Dahl I believe. It triggered her to start thinking “wait a minute, this person doesn't even know what's available to them, and she doesn't want to grow trees to have them cut down like the forest timber management, she wants it more for nature. I started explaining to [Jaime Dahl], “I don't even know what how to start my plan like, where do I begin?”  

Molly Sowash and her puppy, Lida, greeting her first group of Lowline Angus calves in spring 2020. Molly is a light skinned young woman crouching and wearing a blue jacket. Her dog is light brown and the eight black cows stand in the middle of a green field.
Molly Sowash and her puppy, Lida, greeting her first group of Lowline Angus calves in spring 2020.

The miscommunication between groups with specialized language is something that Val experienced in her own professional work as well. Sometimes Val presented at meetings with her own specialized IT knowledge without explaining the concepts in detail which could have led to miscommunications or alienation in the group of people who did not know what she was referring to. She further explains this dilemma: 

 

“Here's an example of what I felt like when I went into those meetings, and it goes back to when I was in IT... and we were very technical and when we talk; the acronyms flew. We talked about the different... connections of the network to this to the “hyper-this” and the services here and give me this “web whatever. And then we would go into business meetings and talk to our business owners and tell them all this technical stuff and they'd sit there looking at us like what in the world, are you talking about, because I have no clue what you just said and that's how I felt in the meetings when Jamie started and they started talking about the different forestry techniques, and so I backed up one step and said to her you talk very fluently from your knowledge base, which is, which is great, but I have no idea what you were saying here's what I’m looking for, so I told her what I needed. But I tried to translate it to her in a way that she understood like “oh okay you don't know this, but here's where you can go to get that” and so that's what it happened, but then it triggered in my own head like ‘oh wow how many businesspeople did I confuse when I was working’ but hey that those days are over.”  

 

Val advised Daisy and Zahra in their own careers: “When you start going out in the world, remember that when you're not in that that group of individuals that speak the same language, you have to be very careful, especially if you're trying to sell a good idea, and that other person's the one funding it for you.” We took this to heart as well when we began curating our questions, and Katherine Borland pointed out some of the specialized language and phrasing out to us so we could adjust our questions during interviews. For example, we used terms like “place-making,” “land management,” and “stewardship.” This is an important point for communicating across groups to take notice of, especially when they work to create inclusive spaces. 

  

Creating spaces for open discussion of shared knowledge can be challenging when the community demonstrates a range of knowledge and needs. WOW is working to fill in these gaps of knowledge from a gendered perspective and demonstrates a heightened awareness of this discrepancy as public educators. 

 

 

Photo taken by Danielle Gill - image of green woodlands taken at the Vinton Furnace State Experimental Forest, Vinton Co., Ohio
Woodlands at the Vinton Furnace State Experimental Forest, Vinton Co., Ohio. Photo taken by Danielle Gill.

 

What's in a Name?

According to Jamie Dahl, the founder and former leader of the SE Ohio chapter of WOW, one of WOW’s recurring challenges is its name: Women Owning Woodlands. This name often implies ownership of land as a requirement of participation, which is not the case. WOW is a network for all women professionals and women who are passionate about natural resources to share their knowledge, ask questions, share resources, and develop professionally. WOW started as a way to bring together women landowners, especially for those who had managed their land for decades but had not found other women in forestry leadership positions. WOW is all about creating community through knowledge sharing to traditionally underrepresented groups in the forestry and land management world. While the individuals the fieldworkers interviewed for this project both happened to own and manage their own property, this does not bar individuals from entry or participation in WOW webinars or activities.  

 

One of the consistent benefits of a connection with WOW are the educational webinars and events provided to the public. There is no barrier to entry for these events, and they center on helping women interested in learning more about the land they live on. These events provide greater access to knowledge and information about how to manage land and help to create a community of primarily women foresters and enthusiasts through their shared learning. For example, Molly Sowash mentioned a program she attended on tree identification as particularly memorable because it helped her learn the species of trees present on her land. She described this past meeting as an enjoyable gathering of women who brought together food for a potlock in addition to discussing trees. One of the other helpful webinars that she attended was titled “Setting Your Forest Management Objectives,” which assisted her with thinking and determining her goals as a first step in creating a long-term forest management plan for her property.   

 

Age was another subject that came up when discussing the implications of the term “owning”: traditionally, older individuals own land, which potentially creates another barrier to access. For Molly Sowash, a young member of WOW, there were a combination of personal and professional reasons for her engagement with WOW. Molly wanted to know more about the woods that are part of her home. She connects deeply with the land and satisfies her role as a nature enthusiast by participating in this community. Molly also professionally cares for public lands and obliges herself for valuable initiatives related to the idea of a healthy and clean environment. Women of all ages, land owning or otherwise, can participate in WOW. Molly had a great answer to Zahra’s question about how her age impacts her participation with WOW: 

“I think a personal side and a professional side. The professional side is being that AmeriCorps Member who could add this to my work plan and kind of be a liaison for my organization, so we can offer our resources and, and help further our mission to educate and collaborate with landowners. And then the personal side is having moved back to Ohio a year and a half ago and finding myself on this land and with an opportunity to kind of get to know the woods better and to make decisions about it and be the, I have a lot of interests, and I take on a lot of interest in one of those is like forestry and it's, it's pretty new to me so, yeah, just looking to be more connected to other women area who are thinking and learning about the same topic. I think a lot of other women are, tend to be older, and landowners themselves, although lots of our webinars... other AmeriCorps members around my age attend too and kind of come to it with a different relationship to public lands, and public forest versus, you know, not being landowners themselves.” 

Despite the questions surrounding the term “owning” in WOW, the group effectively empowers women to learn and manage their own land through webinars and social and professional networks. Both Molly and Val have found their lessons and direct attention beneficial to exploring their land management goals and futures.  

 

Storytelling, Music, and Land Ownership

The stories and experiences created and shared together connected to land are a clear example of the concept of “place-making” that OFS wants to represent through their research. During their fieldwork, when Daisy and Zahra shared their interest in studying folklore at OSU with Val, who in return described some of the stories she and her husband created while caring for and building a relationship with their land. She explains: 

“We named everything. We have K2, which is a hill that kicks your butt going up and down because it’s so far high. Mount Whitney, which is a nice big, bald mountain. Robin Morning Trail, which is a trail that you can hear all the morning the robin mornings; all the songbirds. The other one we call ‘Hobbit’ because when you hike down it, there's the rock structures that come out of the ground. There's Swamp Dog Trail, which is [named] because our dog always likes to jump into the little pond by the seeps. He looks like a swamp though. He goes in black and white, because he's dalmatian, [and] he comes out like a black lab. That's our little hill side. So, we have names of all the different places on the land.”

Songwriting is another example of creative place-making Daisy and Zahra came across during their collaboration with WOW. Molly Sowash co-wrote a song with her former band, Mama Caught Fire, about feeling homesick for Southeast Ohio, "Run Away." Her deep connection to her land and to the larger region despite living in several different states was apparent. Though not in the band anymore, the songwriting group was an important way for her to deepen her connection to the place she felt most a home. 

“I lived in Minnesota for four years, during college and three years afterwards. I like felt this homesickness throughout. But it was really like, wow, I want to move home to Athens, but Athens wasn't my home growing up, Columbus was but I didn't realize until I left how like drawn I was to this ecosystem and maybe I’ll have to share a song, I wrote with you all, with a band I used to be in called Runaway and it's it kind of names those wild flowers and talks about that pole home to this particular land. I think there's, something about natural spaces that feel more personable than city spaces to me, and I love the House I grew up in in the neighborhood, but I don't feel homesick for it in the same way. When I was in my first year of college, [my dad] sent a care package, but it was just like a box full of buckeyes some pinecones, there was like some pressed wildflowers... It was just like a box of nature, and so that is just one piece of the longing for and then, the nature of home I guess...” 

Where to find WOW:

Public Facebook Page for SE Ohio: https://www.facebook.com/SEOhioWOW 

National WOW Facebook Page: https://www.facebook.com/WomenOwningWoodlands 

National WOW Website: http://womenowningwoodlands.net/ 

Danielle Gill (Hocking Soil and Water Conservation District): danielle.gill@oh.nacdnet.net 

Denise Natoli Brooks (Central State University Extension): dbrooks@centralstate.edu 

 

Other Public-Facing WOW Presentations and Resources:

Public presentation from the Environmental Professionals Network with The Ohio State University. 

Women on the Land: A Landowner's Guide to Stewarding her Woodlands by Olivia Lukacic and Paul Catanzaro of UMass Amherst and Emily Huff of Michigan State University 

 

Leaders of SE Ohio WOW:

Danielle Gill (Hocking Soil and Water Conservation District) 

Denise Natoli Brooks (Central State University Extension) 

Jenna Balazs (Hocking Soil and Water Conservation District) 

Jess Bowen (The Ohio State University Extension) 

Katie Gerber (ODNR Division of Forestry) 

Molly Sowash (AmeriCorps Member/Rural Action) 

Stephanie Downs (ODNR Division of Forestry) 

 

Credits:

Daisy Ahlstone and Zahra Abedinezhad-Mehrabadi: Fieldworkers and Writers.  

***Interview quotes have been slightly edited for readability. Full transcriptions are available through the Center for Folklore Studies Archive.  

Danielle Gill (Hocking Soil and Water Conservation District): Photographer; SE Ohio WOW chapter leader and organizer 

Molly Sowash: Songwriter 

Valerie Scott, Molly Sowash: Photographers; Interviewees