Are women different from men when it comes to owning and managing a forest? If so, do those differences matter?
With more than 60 percent of private woodland owners in the U.S. older than age 55, we will soon see rapid transitions in ownership. Statistics show that women outlive men by about 5.4 years, so many women are likely to become the sole owners of these properties, in many cases as interim owners until the handoff to the next generation. This phenomenon may already be widespread, though hard data don’t exist.
When more woodland is owned by women, what will this mean for the regional landscape? What will this mean on a personal level?
Darlene Belknap lost her husband, Sherry, last year to cancer. Together they owned several parcels of woodland in the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont. She said, “Sherry always took care of the land and environmental things. I would help out by typing or backing him up, but my interests were tied up in running the store and my apparel business. Sherry was the woodsman.” After he died, Belknap realized she did not fully grasp the legal implications of some of the title conveyances and contracts Sherry had arranged.
“I wish I had paid more attention to what he was doing and why he was doing it,” Belknap said. “I would tell other couples to sit down together with a lawyer so everyone understands what is what.” Now she meets with their lawyer, forester, and other people in her support system, but confides that “to learn something out of my realm has been very difficult for me.”
Belknap is determined to keep the land. It’s her home. And Sherry always envisioned that it would provide them with retirement income. But it is easy to see how other women who don’t feel a personal connection to the land might quickly sell it. If they suffer economic uncertainty after their partner’s death, women might be more likely to sell or subdivide their lands into smaller parcels for income. It would be tempting for anyone not accustomed to managing woodland to divest herself of it just to simplify her life, especially in a time of transition and grief.
In a case where a woman like Belknap wants to hold on to the family land, how might she manage the parcel differently than a man would? Or, to put a twist on Freud’s famous question: What do women want with their woodland?
The few studies available show that women often view working landscapes differently than men do. Surveys of owners of forested land in Wisconsin and farmland in Iowa show women tend to view their land more as a legacy than a means of income.
Studies of woodland owners in Finland show that female owners feel it is important to be able to visualize the post-harvest landscape in very detailed ways prior to committing to a cutting plan. In the Southern U.S., female farmers who own their land alone were more likely than their male counterparts to keep larger tracts of woodland rather than subdivide them from their farmland. Yet these women are less likely to seek commodity loans or other governmental supports for any of their lands. All these considerations might influence harvesting decisions, type of stewardship, and the next transition in ownership.
What about women as partners who have been on the periphery of management decisions? As Belknap’s case illustrates, once a woman becomes the sole owner of a parcel of woodland, she can face a steep learning curve. Can this be made any easier? Again, studies of farmers in Iowa show that women learn differently than men. They often prefer to learn in the company of other women and prefer to learn by hands-on activities or storytelling rather than lectures. Many women have time constraints due to their own jobs or ongoing care of children or parents.
The little we know of the next generation of woodland heirs hints at some differences between how daughters and sons are treated by their parents. Studies in Wisconsin and Pennsylvania show that daughters are more likely than sons to be left out of management activities of family-owned forests, including the decision making. In Wisconsin, more than 80 percent of sons said their parents had talked with them about the future of the family forest, but only 65 percent of daughters reported the same. Many of the heirs wanted to be more involved. All heirs, whether male or female, were concerned that the high cost of medical care, taxes, or other unforeseen expenses could be factors that might force them to sell their family forest despite their intentions to keep it.
I know it is risky to speculate on gender differences. Every person is multidimensional. Isn’t there an old joke about putting three women in a room with a question and out come nine different opinions? I just hope women choose to enter the room – or in this case, the forest – early enough to prepare for possible sole ownership. And I hope that other people will be encouraging and supportive when they do, because women will help determine the shape of our northern forests in the near future.
Annette Lorraine is a real estate attorney and land conservation consultant. She lives adjacent to the Groton State Forest and has an office in Montpelier, Vermont.