WOW: a palindrome that behaves like a verb, an interjection or a noun and is typically associated with great excitement, admiration or success.

For landowners in West Virginia, this word serves all three functions: the WV Women Owning Woodlands program, or WOW, is a budding group that provides opportunities for female landowners to learn about sustainable forest management, communicate their experiences and inspire natural resource stewardship on private lands.

Women live an average of 4.8 years longer than their male partners, and the percentage of family-owned forests where a woman is the primary decision maker doubled from 2006 to 2013. But women are significantly less likely than men to participate in land management activities, mostly for lack of knowledge. Female natural resource professionals throughout the United States, in an effort to cut through this unnecessary doubt, are establishing a new generation of informed landowners through WOW and other similar trainings.

In West Virginia, the WOW program is taking root and branching out under the steady leadership of Barb Breshock and the support from key partners, including private forestry consultants, environmental organizations, the state Division of Forestry, the U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service and the West Virginia University Extension Service.Barb Breshock, WV WOW organizer and leader, demonstrates how take an increment bore to determine tree age. (Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay)

Breshock, a retired assistant state forester for the DOF, said that “there was likely a need for women landowners to have resources to draw from and the means to connect and share their experiences. I hope I can convey my expertise and forestry knowledge to other women.” She has had experience with other women-focused trainings, and “has seen the benefits.”

The kick-off workshop, which took place in late May 2019 at Watoga State Park in Pocahontas County, provided the perfect backdrop for appreciating the woods, water and wildlife of West Virginia. Female forestry professionals provided an introduction to forest ecology, bird watching and a shiitake mushroom propagation workshop.

The introductory chainsaw safety and operation course was led by Johnny King, service forester and chainsaw safety instructor for the DOF, and its participants wholeheartedly agreed that he was the right man for the job.

A field tour through the nearby Calvin Price State Forest gave attendees a chance to practice tree identification, measure the height and diameter of trees and check out different forestry treatments for wildlife habitat improvements.

During my 20 years in the field of natural resources, the majority of my professional relationships are networked through the family patriarch. As one of the instructors for the weekend, I found our conversations insightful and meaningful — strong and intelligent women looking for solutions to overcome barriers and accomplish land management goals on properties that they control. VW WOW, and other comparable programs, will help cultivate an emerging group of women who are ready to make educated decisions for their families and their land.

Breshock’s intent is to develop a dynamic series of workshops, adapting to meet the educational needs and operational challenges of female forest landowners. In addition to the plants and animals on their properties, workshop surveys indicate that women want to learn more about the financial side of forestry; from estate planning to timber sale contracts to negotiations with consultants and contractors.

The second workshop took place in August at the Zero Grade Trail in Tucker County’s Fernow Experimental Forest. Attendees observed the results of decades of applied forest management and learned about basic management systems, types of timber harvests and the role of prescribed fire in oak forest types. 

WV WOW aims to create a safe, friendly and nurturing environment, as well as promote communication networks for women who make land management decisions. The workshop design considers inclusivity and equality. The active, and private, Facebook group serves as a platform for education, encouragement and positive action. Examples of Facebook posts include plant identification, herbicide application, grapevine control, wildlife pictures, potential workshop topics and new state and federal assistance programs.

The overarching WOW program is a collaborative project of the National Woodland Owners Association and the USDA Forest Service Cooperative Forestry Office. The project “strives to bring topical, accessible and current forestry information to woodland owners and forest practitioners through news articles, blogs, events, resources and personal stories. We support women in forest leadership, women who manage their own woodlands, and all who facilitate the stewardship of forests.” For information, visit womenowningwoodlands.net.

Our own Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay staff member, Jenny McGarvey, shadowed a WOW-TELE (Tools for Engaging Landowners) workshop in October 2017. In fall 2018, both Breshock and McGarvey attended the Women and their Woods Retreat in Pennsylvania hosted by the Delaware Highlands Conservancy and their many partners. Each walked away with new strategies and approaches for engaging landowners.

For Breshock, it helped hone her approach to the WV program. For McGarvey, it included adopting a cognitive mapping exercise to help visualize land management goals and adapting the practice for a wide variety of audiences.
Breshock has been pleasantly surprised by the wide age range of attendees — from 20-somethings to multiple generations of mothers and daughters — as well as their willingness to travel for the chance to improve stewardship and encourage fellowship.

In the future, she would like to incorporate more demonstration and solution-oriented workshops on private forestlands.

As word of WV WOW reaches other areas of the state, Breshock hopes to provide scholarships to cover the travel, food and registration costs for some participants.

Size does not matter for WV WOW — participants need not own big tracts of land; they need only bring their questions, sense of humor and enthusiasm to learn. For information about the WV WOW program, visit wvforestry.com/landowner-assistance or contact Breshock at breshock@hotmail.com or 304-934-6777. For information about WOW programs in other states, visit womenowningwoodlands.net.

Holly May is the watershed forester for the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay.

Views expressed by columnists are not necessarily those of the Bay Journal.