It’s a Journey
Kathryn is the Executive Director of Dovetail Partners and a forester by training. She has worked on development and forest management issues in a range of roles. Her work has included natural resource inventories, comprehensive planning, environmental impact assessments and the use of Geographic Information Systems (GIS). She has also developed and managed a group certification project for family forests and worked to increase local capacity to provide forest management and marketing services that are compatible with certification standards. Kathryn has been a leader within the forestry community in the Upper Midwest. Kathryn has a B.S. in Forest Resources from the University of Minnesota, College of Natural Resources and also studied at the College of Saint Benedict in St. Joseph, MN and Sheldon Jackson College in Sitka, Alaska.
I have worked in the forest sector for a little over twenty years – from environmental consulting to the non-profit sector. Since 2006 I have been Executive Director of Dovetail Partners (www.dovetailinc.org) a non-profit environmental think tank based in Minneapolis, MN, USA.
Like other foresters I have known, I came to forestry by way of growing up on a farm. I have two stories of what drew me to the natural sciences and ultimately to working with trees. First was a childhood awareness of the differences between what I experienced on our family’s farm and what I experienced when my family went camping or hiking. The difference that struck me was that on the farm I knew everything --- in that everything had a name to me (be it plant, animal, crop or weed) and I had a sense of each thing’s role and purpose. When I was in the forest, I didn’t know what I was looking at, the name of what I was looking at, or what its role was within the system. That made me curious. My instinct was that if I could understand the pieces of the farm perhaps I could also understand the pieces of the forest. By understanding the pieces, perhaps I could understand the system and even engage in its stewardship and care. The second part of my draw to forestry was experiencing science classes in middle school and the power to ask questions, seek answers, explain phenomenon, and continually dig deeper with a new set of questions. The logic, effectiveness, patience, and pragmatism of science felt like home.
Now to understand those two stories, the other thing to know about me is that I was raised on a certified organic farm (A-Frame Farm, http://stories.renewingthecountryside.org/2012/06/a-frame-farm/ ). More specifically, my childhood corresponded with the period of time during which our farm was transitioning to organic and the system of management was being developed (equipment changes, crop rotations, nutrient and weed management strategies, etc). Through this process, I experienced very directly the process of experimentation in land management and the potential impacts and benefits.
One of the reasons our farm was going organic was because it was the 1980s and in the Midwestern U.S. the farm economy was in dire straits. Referred to as the “1980s Farm Crisis” (http://www.iptv.org/mtom/classroom/module/13999/farm-crisis), it was a traumatic time to be a farm family. The most recent modern day parallel could be the Housing Bubble and Mortgage Crisis of 2007-2009). In both instances, people lost their jobs, businesses, and homes; neighbors left in the middle of the night; and classmates disappeared from schools – with short and long term impacts to individuals, families, and communities.
In hindsight, one outcome of the farm crisis was that it pushed our family to go organic for environmental reasons as much as economic necessity -- and taking the road less traveled has made all the difference. Another outcome was that it steered me away from farming and away from the small town where I grew up. Given the condition of the farm economy in the 1980s, parents were not advising their children to stay. The advice from all directions was to get an education and secure a future elsewhere. (This was valid and helpful advice, but it has led to generational gaps and big challenges in many communities…which is another story for another time…)
Fast-forwarding to now, I look back at the joy that a career in forestry has brought me. I often feel I have benefitted from working during a golden age of re-discovery in forestry. Watching the sector reclaim its potential and reassert its voice in recent decades has been thrilling to be a part of. Entering forestry in the 1990s and seeing the personal and professional impacts of the many environmental battles of preceding decades was intimidating and humbling. At the same time, seeing the innovation and leadership that was emerging in response to the crisis gave hope for the change that was to come. Today, hearing the forest sector speak from the heart of its power to address many of the world’s greatest needs – from renewable energy and clean water resources to carbon storage, quality job opportunities, affordable housing, sustainable cities and many more – it feels like we are coming into the age of trees.
Now, I could tell other stories about my time in forestry that are not as positive and optimistic. Stories about what I view as missteps in the sector and opportunities that have been left on the table too long – like the long delayed recognition and appreciation of urban forestry as a meaningful undertaking, or the persistent siloing of forestry work as separate from other rural community and farm engagement efforts. There is a constant need for forestry to look forward for the long term, take risks with innovation, learn from shared failure, and seek collaborations that reflect the fact that we work within systems – ecosystems, social structures, and economies.