A generation ago, it was rare to find women working the forested landscape. Today they are often leaders in the field, protecting its health, developing products, and tying workers and landowners together across the region.
Neither age nor gender slows them down. Colleen Goodridge, a mentor to many, points to Vermont’s farming legacy as the roots. “On the farm we never talked about a job for a man or a woman,” she says. “It was getting the job done and doing a good job.” On a wider scale, “One of the things about Vermonters is, we wear many hats, and we can adapt when needed. You do what you need to do, to get the job done.”
Emily Meacham always wears a ball cap. Diana Frederick never does. When she drove the truck to move logs, Kim Lemieux made sure to always have a backpack of extra warm clothes, a jackknife, and water. And Colleen Goodridge, in a fleece vest and boots, at a desk within sight of her family sawmill, keeps an ear on her phone, “We try to develop a relationship and communication beginning with the first phone call.”
First You Fall in Love
The barns and sheds for M&K Lemieux Logging sit atop a St. Johnsbury ridge with a view that can reach New Hampshire. Kim doesn’t often drive the machines now. She runs the office, while her husband Mike, who is “partly retired,” and their son Zeb, do the logging. She stayed home when her children were small, but when the kids were older she enjoyed driving truckloads of logs to mills in northern New England and Canada. Most of all, she loves the woods. “We worked up in Pittsburgh, New Hampshire, and it’s just beautiful up there,” she says beaming. That was when she fell for the woods, with its back roads, wildlife, and welcoming “locals.” It’s also where she once found her truck stuck in a heavy snowstorm—which explains why she is always prepared when she drives.
Growing up with farming, she took to logging machinery right away. Despite the small size of the Lemieux family business, “We have everything we need to do our stuff.” That means a feller buncher (which is used to pick up trees), a skidder (to move trees and logs over the ground), a truck to transport wood, and a “low-bed” trailer rigged for moving equipment from job to job. She avoids doing repairs in the garage, but, she says, “I give pretty good feedback! If something doesn’t sound right, I’ll let the boys know.” Kim counts on their son Zeb, who grew up in the business and specialized in repair during his college training. Of course, sometimes a problem sneaks up on you, so Kim adds, “I’ve walked out of the woods many times!”
This wasn’t the career Kim expected; she dreamed of being an archaeologist, and some of her most thrilling forest jobs have been near vanished towns where only cellar holes remain, and where the loggers team up to keep away from historical evidence, as they did in Piperville, a vanished village of Wheelock. They also maneuvered alongside archaeologists for a project in Lemington, on the upper Connecticut River.
Kim’s passion for archaeology still moves her deeply, so in this family business, if your machine’s route to the woods must cross a stone wall, you stop to appreciate it, take it apart carefully, and restore it before leaving the property.
It’s Not What You Expect!
Like Kim, Diana Frederick didn’t aim for forestry right away. Growing up in Jericho, she dreamed of being a veterinarian or physical therapist. But during high school, she entered a “Nature Guide” program that took her into the woods and also got her coaching elementary school students about nature. Foresters came to teach the group, and Diana found her passion.
Her University of Vermont education in natural resources began in 1975 with a class of 90; only 30 would make it to graduation, and just three of those were women. Diana was the only one of those three to concentrate on forestry. Finishing the coursework in four years required a full load of credits each semester, plus summer school. She doubted the use of the required communications classes, but they turned out critical for her role as a forest protection specialist, then for 20 years as State Lands Stewardship Forester, responsible for about 90,000 acres and ongoing staff.
“We all got into it because we liked being out in the woods,” she says, “but I swear 90 percent of what we do is talking with people.”
Diana was the first woman to work as a professional forester in Vermont. Six months after she broke in, a second woman was hired. Working mostly from the Barre office at first, she soon networked across the state. No problems dealing with the (mostly male) loggers for her. “I found they treated me much better than they treated my counterparts,” she remembers. Her husband Paul Frederick, also working for the Department of Forests, Parks and Recreation, reminded her that many of those loggers “came from an era where they treated women well.”
But Diana adds that she insisted on protecting her personal space on the job. “You don’t want to appear weak,” she says. “I don’t intimidate easily!”
Diana is the one who hates ball caps—except in spring, to keep gnats at a distance. She’ll don a tuque (the French-Canadian term for a knitted cap) in winter. Her usual attire is jeans and a T-shirt. What counts more than what you wear is your education in caring for the woods, and even though she’s retired from her state slot, she carries on mentoring and leading, in 2022 as president of the New England Society of American Foresters.
Her focus on communication also reflects how different her work has been from, say, Kim Lemieux’s experience. Working with family most of the time, Kim explained they developed a sign language to communicate without stopping loud machines. For Diana, rebuilding state forest roads with their culverts and bridges means she’s often worked with new people, negotiating personalities as well as skills. She teaches them, “We operate as a team here. We all have to be able to work by ourselves, but we are a team!”
For example, a road can wash out in spring, and replacing a bridge (or changing to one, instead of culverts) requires a concrete header, steel I-beams, and then wooden decking. So Diana established a “district day” that united the staff and others to spend an entire day together, “decking” the bridge, with lunch and all.
The Tools and Pests Keep Changing
The final step of building a forest-road bridge is moving soil into place to smooth out the start of the bridge, historically done with a bulldozer. That reminds Diana of one of the two biggest changes she’s seen in her career: the switch from bulldozers, which often create mud and damage wet areas, to excavators. The second change is the Global Positioning System (GPS) devices her staff all carry for navigating the woods.
GPS devices have replaced Diana’s old compass, but she’s OK with it. Come to a pile of toppled trees—a blowdown—and with a GPS device, you can just walk around it, or you can avoid a cliff, and the land you’re on still gets mapped.
The point isn’t just to find your way, but to discover the boundaries of a piece of land and to make sure it’s carefully examined. Diana looks for beech bark disease, where scale insects make holes that allow Nectria fungi to invade the tree. She watches for gypsy moth, now called “spongy moth,” as well as the emerald ash borer and hemlock woolly adelgid. She describes these as “introduced species that the forest didn’t develop with,” so the trees don’t have a way to deal with the invaders. Global commerce increases this movement of pests.
Diana’s job also includes estimating how much wood will come from a particular lot. For this, she used to carry (in addition to her compass) a Biltmore stick, which gets held up at arm’s length to approximate the diameter of the tree. “The forester is estimating what’s in the tree,” she explains, such as, “we think this is a 20-inch tree and they’ll get two 10-foot logs out of it.” That’s been replaced now by a D-tape, which converts the measure around the tree into the critical distance across the trunk (the diameter, or D).
These create straightforward descriptions of trees, essential for harvest planning that keeps the forested landscape a working one. But for long-term health and protection, there are scientific skills that have changed a lot since Diana was in college, when she’d collect bugs from the woods and pop them into her mother’s freezer.
And that’s where Emily Meacham steps up.
It’s About the Science
Emily, the youngest of these women, is about 40 years old and works from the St. Johnsbury office of the Department of Forests, Parks and Recreation—but she’s hardly ever there, spending most of her time working with landowners in the woods.
She dreamed of being a country forester in school in Maine, but working with a real-life country forester in Vermont, she accepted his advice and dove into special training to become a protection forester, a job that combines a forest health program with wildlands and fire protection. In Vermont, that boils down to forest health. There are five protection foresters in Vermont and they also support towns and fire departments.
In a usual year, Emily expects to spend almost every day from May through October in the field. November depends on projects and weather, and December through February are pretty quiet. In all months, she responds to public concerns, and she admits with a chuckle that, at least once a year, she’ll get a call from someone concerned about trees turning yellow along I-91 between St. Johnsbury and Lyndonville—a natural stage of life for tamaracks.
“A lot of what we do in Vermont is long-term monitoring of the forest,” she explains. She measures the diameters of trunks and crowns of trees; she notes diseases from insect pests entering the state, and like Diana, she points to global trade as a culprit. Pests enter from Europe and parts of Asia. “They haven’t evolved here with our tree species, so it’s hard to keep them in check.” Others flow outward from our forests to theirs. She says the spongy moth (formerly called gypsy moth) has also seen an uptick in Vermont and New Hampshire, although not as much in the Northeast Kingdom because of fewer oaks.
“It’s not at all what I imagined,” she admits. But it fits her interests. “I’ve always really loved science.” Forest health also tends to employ many more women, close to half. Before specializing, Emily was almost always the lone female working with timber harvest management plans.
When Emily and other consulting foresters work with private landowners, the landowner sets goals, like creating habitat or encouraging biodiversity. “It’s really harmonious,” she reflects. “I feel like people are excited to hear what we have to say and to share stories. So many people around here are so deeply connected to the land.”
She recommends this work to people who don’t identify as male. “It is looking more and more diverse in gender,” she explains. “It’s not physically demanding. I think people sometimes get confused between logging and forestry—[forestry] is basically walking around, not throwing axes!” Most of all, forestry for Emily is about building relationships with people and continuing a conversation about the land.
What does she wear to the woods? Always a ball cap for her long hair, which she binds in a ponytail or braid. The cap keeps twigs from catching in her hair. Her must-have backpack items include Benadryl, because “you never know when you’re going to have something in the woods that you react to or get bitten by.”
She dresses in layers for the work, and adds, “I never leave my truck without a compass!”
Even though there are many women in professional forestry, for Emily it’s still a treat to come across others in the woods. She’s also quick to praise Colleen Goodridge for blazing the trail: “Colleen is kind of famous! Everybody loves her.”
The Vermont Difference
Each of these forest workers devotes time to mentoring others because there’s a continued need for more trained people in these linked fields. For Colleen Goodridge, in the 49th year of business for Goodridge Lumber, if Vermont is going to hold onto its treasured identity, there’s a new urgency to this encouragement.
Colleen quotes Paul Costello, who led the Vermont Council on Rural Development, when she points out the benefits of generations of families dedicating their lives to the forest. There’s a need for acceptance, value, support, and appreciation of these benefits, “to avoid losing what makes Vermont, Vermont. We are on the edge right now,” this mill owner warns.
Her own story began on a dairy farm in Irasburg, where her parents passed along their values, and she trained as a preschool teacher. When she married, she and her husband wanted a log cabin to live in, so they helped another farmer harvest timber in exchange for logs of 9-10 inches in diameter. “Come spring, we had a pile of logs and the brilliant idea of cutting them ourselves.” She winces a bit as she remembers. For the large sum (at that time) of $500, they brought home a sawmill from a field, hauling it through mud-season roads, with two flat tires along the way.
The sawmill turned out to be missing so many parts that they had to sell their logs to repair it. In 1974, they got the mill running, using a borrowed tractor for power—until the owner needed it back for haying. A contract to process logs for a Hardwick mill got them over the bump, as they built a mill structure out of poles and used tin.
Doggedly, the pair continued, and fabricated the mill they wanted, on East Bailey Hazen Road in Albany. “Three boys happened along the way,” Colleen notes, and all three now co-own the mill business with her, milling only cedar logs. Each handles his aspect of the operation: Doug, 49, is the main sawyer; Mark, 46, handles planning, operations, and maintenance; Brian, 41, buys the logs, manages the “yard,” stacks lumber, and delivers products; and one to three others are also employed in the family business, including a nephew and at times a granddaughter.
Goodridge Lumber serves a 75-mile radius, and Colleen estimates they work with 80 to 100 landowners, foresters, loggers, and truckers every year, “all dependent on one another to make it work. They all have to be successful.”
Now that her sons handle much of the physical labor, Colleen specializes in handling communications and the office. For instance, each logger who’ll bring in cedar receives a spec sheet, and then the Goodridge family goes over that logger’s first load together, to praise and critique, pointing out bends, any rot, or “butt flare” that needs to be trimmed off a log. “Our suppliers are the reason we’re here,” Colleen emphasizes, “like a big family.”
Other factors haven’t stayed stable, though. Colleen says, “Years ago, one year did not change much from another.” In a good winter, logging happened from December until mud season; during mud time, repairs got done, and in summer, lots were located for the next harvest. With a grin, this “boss” adds that “everybody takes a break for deer season.”
However, that routine is in jeopardy. Mother Nature doesn’t guarantee the frozen roads needed to move logs in winter for 16 weeks; it could be as short as 12. The cedar grows in soft ground that must be frozen hard, for 800,000 to 1 million board feet of lumber per year to be produced by the Goodridges. A shorter winter or a rainy summer can influence access to the cedar. More challenges come from wood markets, pricing, and “excess rules and regulations.” Labor becomes scarce, as people dedicate time to maple sugaring (which used to not begin until Town Meeting Day) and other diverse occupations.
“On the whole, we are an aging group, and workforce is on the minds of every one of us,” Colleen reflects. “I think we have done a poor job on technical exploration for many students.” There are so many jobs for those wanting to use their hands and be outdoors, and she doesn’t feel students are “getting” that message. So she serves on the North Country Career Center Advisory Committee, and field trips come to the mill for students of all ages.
“If you can, light that spark and have them start thinking,” she urges. “We always took it for granted that this was something you learned growing up. That piece is missing!”
Core Values Matter
The Covid-19 pandemic brought more change. “The demand for lumber has been overwhelming, for people doing long-deferred projects and those moving here, needing to renovate or build homes,” Colleen says. However, she finds that fuel prices have taken away the profit margins from those good wood prices.
She also is vice-president of the Vermont Forest Products Association and spends time at the State House, asking for wiser policies. She notes, “We’ve lost loggers and truckers, due to aging or other reasons. Can a young person even get into the business without his family perhaps making an arrangement for his equipment?”
Colleen offers her wishes for the future, her schoolteacher training clear in her precise descriptions. For her family sawmill, “We’re praying for cold weather to get the woods frozen so we can get the logs out next year. Orders remain very strong.”
For the state, she feels results of a 2009 survey, by the Council on Rural Development, of Vermonters’ core values should point the way. “It boiled down to the working landscape of farms and forests,” as what Vermonters value. She’d like to see more attention focused there.
That means more mentoring, too. Colleen urges, “Do what needs to be done and what interests you. Don’t think about if you’re a male or female. Know what you’re doing. Do your job, and the rest will fall into place.”
At age 70, Colleen still does her share. In the log yard and lumber mill, “If someone’s missing, they’ll say, Ma, can you come out and handle the saw?”
But she’s also working for the entire state, on behalf of its working landscape. When she takes a moment to look around her office—the photo of her grown sons, the phone ringing again, the papers and books (and her dog, Hazen, keeping an eye out)—she takes a breath, then sums up her sense of mission:
“I guess it’s important for us to come out of the woods and tell our story.”