Carolyn Mulligan never walks into the woods without a compass.
She did it exactly once, early in her career. But even as GPS and smartphone technology have made their way into forestry, as they have transformed virtually all fields of endeavor, Carolyn still takes the compass when she goes into the forest.
Being relentlessly self-sufficient has been both a character trait and a hallmark of her 32-year career as a forester, a trek that has brought Carolyn not just personal satisfaction but also no small measure of public recognition, most recently as President of the Virginia Forestry Association. Today, it’s the experience gained during her executive tenure there and her 24 years and current role as District Manager at American Forest Management that has her musing about the role of women in forestry.
“To me, it’s an indication that as an industry we’re missing something, somewhere,” Carolyn confides. “During the time I was the Forestry Association President, our association had what I would consider to be a fairly large board of thirty or more people. But there were very few women playing key roles. It’s likely that the situation among government agencies and non-profit organizations looks a little different, but my experience signals to me that we are missing an opportunity to expose more women to the business side of forestry.
“It may be that our colleges and universities need to shift a little in their emphasis, advising female forestry students to be more open to the business side of things. After all, we’re all geared toward making the world a more sustainable place, a better place. We can be effective in the business arena just as we can and do in the governmental and non-profit arenas.”
For Carolyn, the lure of life in the woods came early. A childhood in a military family grounded her sense of responsibility as well as offering her exposure to geographic variety. “When I turned 15,” she recalls, “I got a job with the Youth Conservation Corps and I later realized that forestry was the field most closely related. There are so many things I witnessed throughout my days in the woods that are vitally important parts of our natural world.”
“There was one day in particular that sort of symbolizes how the natural world makes its imprint on you. I was sitting in the middle of a pine woods eating a sandwich, and I could hear something approaching. This was more than a little unnerving, since the understory was dense and the visibility was extremely limited. I sat there stock still, and it turned out to be a doe and her fawn, neither of whom saw me so they got amazingly close.
“All of a sudden, the doe gets a scent and her ears perk up, and as soon as she goes on full alert, of course, so does her fawn. We all froze for a good minute. Then, they both went bounding off, with mom in front and the fawn right on her heels. An awesome moment, and I don’t use that word lightly.”
The prospect of a career wrapped around moments such as these suggested a major in forestry. After two years at the University of New Hampshire, Carolyn transferred to Virginia Tech, where she graduated with a B.S. in Forestry and Wildlife Management. Later on, she returned to the academic world for her MBA from Averett University, which had a considerable impact on her passion for the business side of resource management.
“I knew at the time that it was a male-dominated field,” Carolyn recalls, “but that was not even on the radar for me. I was just looking for something that I wanted to do, something I could get genuinely excited about as a career. And forestry has never disappointed.”
I knew at the time that it was a male-dominated field . . . but that was not even on the radar for me. I was just looking for something that I wanted to do, something I could get genuinely excited about as a career. And forestry has never disappointed.
A first job working for a timber management company in Georgia provided Carolyn with valuable experience in research and data collection. After two years, she was transferred to her first field assignment. Ultimately, Carolyn took a position with a Danville, Virginia company which was merged into American Forest Management in 2002. Ever since, she has managed a large territory which includes significant portions of south central Virginia and north central North Carolina.
Carolyn scoffs at the notion of a typical day. “Seasons have their own rhythm in forestry, but not days. Summertime is typically a time of timber sales, site preparation and road work. In the autumn, we’re out in the woods a lot of the time doing timber sale preparation work, survival checks on new pine plantations, timber harvest inspections, timber inventory and tract inspections for operations planning. Spring is heavy on tree planting and crew management. Since American Forest Management works with both industrial and private landowners, we get to experience every facet of the business of resource management.”
As she rises to her subject, Carolyn is again struck by the paradox of women in the industry. “This career demands all the things that should appeal to strong, self-starting women,” she says, “The work is both mental and physical. You have to be confident in dealing with the challenges inherent in resource management. It’s important to be well networked. You have to be open to new ideas and techniques, as the industry is always changing and we’re continually looking for new products and avenues for our timber. And you have to be open-minded and somewhat visionary.”
Helping people achieve their vision for their land is the heart of the personal service Carolyn brings to her day, which includes assisting a varied clientele in sorting through various land and resource uses and applying these to personal vision.
“I work from a fairly small office, so it’s hard to generalize about the type of clients I’ll have at any given time. I could be managing a single large client or juggling multiple smaller ones,” she continues, “and of course they’re all different. The first priority after meeting is to gain a thorough appreciation of the property. Walking the property, getting a feel for its potential. The owner may have a vision and you have to determine if the vision is feasible. You’re trying to help people make the best decisions they can for their land. Some are interested in revenue. Some may have purchased a property that’s in rough condition and needs rehabilitation.”
“You must reconcile financial goals and responsible conservation goals. Over the course of my career, I’ve become pretty well networked. For example, I know all the timber buyers and know which ones are reputable. When you’re helping people plan forest regeneration, you have to have the skills to know what to do and the steps to take in order to increase your chances of success. This is not like advising people on any other asset, because responsible owners of forestland have to be much more involved in the process at every stage. They need to be fully invested in the decision-making process.”
The challenges are met with what can only be described as intense satisfaction. Carolyn’s career, now on its third decade, has witnessed the compression of rotation time in modern forestry, a product of both improved pine forest genetics and advanced sivicultural tools.
“It’s possible now to witness an entire rotation much faster” she explains. “In other words, harvesting, replanting, witnessing the growth of the new forest, and harvesting again. A complete cycle used to take 30 or even 35 years, and with the improved genetics of the pine forest we’ve gotten it down to 25 years or less. I can’t overstate how satisfying it is to manage these natural regenerative processes.”
“Occasionally, you come up against a challenge that really pushes the edge of your personal envelope. For me, one of those involved a client who purchased a property that had been severely mismanaged by prior owners. Essentially, you’re inheriting a mess and trying to turn it into something good. We wound up taking over 600 acres of stagnant Virginia Pine plantation on some very difficult terrain and converting it into a highly productive Loblolly Pine plantation.
“Even in the best of situations, you’re dealing with everything the natural world can throw against you. In this region, that can mean hurricanes, droughts, fires, wind, erosion, you name it. Resource management will test your patience and your character.”
Carolyn understands, in a way that perhaps too few younger people do, that trees and resources are wealth generation in its purest form. “Money doesn’t grow on trees,” she quips, “but it is certainly true that trees do grow the nation’s wealth. And they grow it directly from elemental things like soil, water and air.”
“Look at it this way. If you work for a government agency, you are supported by tax revenue. If you work for a non-profit, you are supported by contributions and dues. There’s nothing wrong with either of those, but the money has to come from somewhere. When you are working in the business of forestry, you are actually helping to create the underlying wealth that supports all of these critical organizations and helps to underwrite the cost of education and the resources it takes for the U.S. to remain competitive in a fully networked global economy. Of course, this doesn’t mean that all forests should be harvested. But it does mean that the acreage we do harvest and regenerate produces the products that make life more comfortable and affordable.”
These are fundamental realities that affect women at least as much as they do men. “Last October, I attended the first ever conference on Women in Natural Resources at Virginia Tech. It was a premier event and it was sold out,” Carolyn says. “There were 200 women there, and I would guess that 95% in attendance worked for government agencies or non-profits. There is a large and growing global business in forest products that is assisted by technical advances that are producing more trees and better trees. Women are missing a big opportunity. This has to change.”
Ultimately, there’s another paradox at the heart of the business of forestry that would seem to make it a compelling career choice for women. Namely, despite the hours spent in the solitude of the woods, all rests on meaningful personal connections. “You get so you love being able to help people with their land and attain their legacy and their vision. This is for people who love being able to travel, who love being outside, who love the opportunity to witness the majesty of the natural world on a daily basis,” Carolyn concludes.
Just don’t forget that compass.
About the Author: Adrienne Walters-Anders received a B.A. in Mass Communication from Winthrop University in 2000 and joined the American Forest Management team shortly after graduating. She is responsible for leading, developing and implementing the communications strategy for the company. Adrienne is also a Licensed Real Estate Salesperson in South Carolina, her home of 26 years.