Men continue to dominate leadership posts in Adirondack conservation groups, but change is in the air
By OLIVIA DYWER
Julia Goren stands atop 5,344-foot Mount Marcy, a forest-green name tag pinned to her short-sleeve khaki button-down shirt. Her uniform marks her as one of the Summit Stewards, the conservation professionals who educate hikers about the rare plants found on New York’s alpine summits.
It’s a summer day in 2016. Goren has worked this job for eight years, often positioned on Marcy or 5,114-foot Algonquin Peak five days a week. During her tenure, she has hiked nearly eight thousand miles, tallied 350 ascents of the two peaks, and spoken to forty thousand people. A man reaches the apex of the lichen-covered open dome, and Goren approaches, ready to do her job.
“Hi, I’m Julia, and I’m a Summit Steward.”
“Oh, you’re a stewardess? Well, where’s my drink?”
Goren has lost count of how many times she’s heard this exact line. Older men—and it’s always older men—believe it’s funny. So Goren delivers the only appropriate response.
“Where’s my pizza? I was told you were bringing me pizza.”
That gets a sheepish chuckle. Goren’s message rings clear. Women belong in the ranks of conservation professionals, and they’re on their way to the top.
Last August, Peg Olsen was named director of the Adirondack chapter of the Nature Conservancy—the first woman to head the Keene Valley-based organization founded in 1972. That’s newsworthy because it’s still rare for a woman to lead major conservation organizations in the Adirondack Park. Of course, there are exceptions: Mary-Arthur Beebe directed the Lake George Association from 1978 to 2005. Nancy Williams left the Lake George Land Conservancy in 2015 after nine years as executive director. Zoe Smith runs the Wildlife Conservation Society’s Adirondack Program in Saranac Lake.
But at other conservation and advocacy groups in the Adirondacks, male leadership remains the constant. That includes the Adirondack Council, the Adirondack Land Trust, the Adirondack Mountain Club, Adirondack Wild, Adirondack Wilderness Advocates, the Fund for Lake George, the Lake George
Association, Lake George Land Conservancy and Protect the Adirondacks. Given the national conversation sparked by the #MeToo movement, about who has power and how it’s used, it’s worth asking: where are the women?
The short answer: women are hard at work on conservation’s front lines, just as they have been for more than a century. But as systemic and cultural changes took effect over the last fifty years, their professional stature steadily increased. Expect women in leadership roles to follow.
A close study of Olsen’s career reveals how women’s participation in conservation has evolved. Her previous post was at the National Audubon Society, a group started by two women in 1896—near the start of the Progressive Era, when wealthy philanthropists turned their attention to protecting natural resources. The modern environmental movement began in the 1960s, when women often participated as grassroots activists. That included Olsen’s mother, whose volunteer efforts included recycling drives, open-space initiatives, and taking her daughter to Walk for Water, a ten-mile trek through Rochester that raised money for water-ecology research.
While Olsen marched, Congress enacted Title IX, the 1972 statute prohibiting sex discrimination in education. Women capitalized on access to higher education: in 1950, just 24 percent of all bachelor’s degrees awarded in the United States went to women; by 2010, that figure had jumped to 57 percent. They joined the professional talent pool as well: the national labor pool was about 30 percent female in 1950; by 2010, the vastly expanded work force was 47 percent women. Olsen earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees, then a Ph.D., and got to work.
Anne LaBastille influenced women interested in Adirondack conservation. LaBastille, an internationally known conservation biologist, was named a commissioner of the Adirondack Park Agency in 1975. The next year, she published Woodswoman, a memoir of her independent, self-sufficient existence at an isolated cabin in the western Adirondacks.
“She was not afraid to do everything herself,” says Zoe Smith, who first read Woodswoman as she moved across the country to take a conservation job after college. “She was comfortable and confident being alone in the woods. That had a huge impact on me.”
Meanwhile, in 1978, Beebe took the reins at the Lake George Association, ninety-three years after the watershed organization was founded. “She helped launch my career,” says Olsen, a former LGA intern.
While Olsen worked her way from intern to executive, another shift occurred. Forty years ago, boards of directors—the governing bodies for conservation organizations—were almost uniformly white men. But as they invited women into the boardroom, a clear advantage emerged. Adirondack Council spokesman John Sheehan points to the contributions of Barbara Glaser, a Saratoga Springs philanthropist who served on the Adirondack Council board for twenty-five years. “Barbara took us into the twenty-first century,” he says. “Her perspective was that as an organization, we should work to find middle ground rather than insisting on having our own way.”
As women proved effective in the boardroom, more were added on staff. That’s reflected in the findings of a 2014 University of Michigan study that looked at diversity efforts at 191 conservation organizations over the last five decades. Women held more than half of the 1,714 leadership positions and represented more than 60 percent of new hires and interns.
At the Adirondack conservation organizations named in this article, women make up, on average, 45 percent of staffers, though the number ranges widely. For example, seven of the Adirondack Mountain Club’s ten key staffers are women. At the Adirondack Council, eight of the thirteen employees are women. Adirondack Wild lists three founders, all of them men, but three of the seven members of its board of directors are women. Protect the Adirondacks has only one employee—Peter Bauer; four of its sixteen directors are women.
The Adirondack Park Agency and state Department of Environmental Conservation also play important roles in protecting the Park. How do they measure up?
The APA has gender parity on its staff. In fact, the agency’s executive director is Terry Martino, and another woman, Lani Ulrich, chaired the board for several years until stepping down in 2016. However, most of the board members (including the current chair) are men.
DEC’s Region 6, which includes the western Adirondacks, has been headed for years by Judy Drabicki. Betsy Lowe led Region 5, which covers most of the Park, for a number of years before leaving in 2011. Region 5 has thirty-four environmental conservation officers (ECOs) and eleven forest rangers. Only three ECOs and six rangers are women. In Region 6, there are twenty-two ECOs, six of whom are women, and eighteen rangers, only two of whom are women.
Diane Fish, deputy director of the Adirondack Council, planned to lead a forum in February (after the Explorer went to press) to identify challenges and opportunity for women in conservation. She and others say having women in the room where decisions are hashed out takes the edge off dialogue and helps build consensus.
“In my experience, when it’s mostly men in the room there’s more competition and less willingness to be really transparent,” Fish said. “In a room full of women, everything gets put on the table, and there’s a frank discussion. We perform important roles in the groups trying to get people together and move policy forward on tough issues.”
Still, men are more likely to hold top positions. That’s also reflected in the 2014 study, where more than 70 percent of presidents and board chairs were male. And the larger an organization, the more likely a man leads: when budgets top $1 million, men represent 90 percent of the top executives. In the Adirondacks, there are few jobs available and not much turnover—both of which mean fewer opportunities at director jobs.
Women interviewed for this story point to other obstacles: male leadership is still the American default; top-tier positions come with long hours hard to balance with a role as primary caregiver; child care often takes priority over after-hours networking that can advance careers. Then there’s the mundane challenges so common in the U.S. workplace they’ve inspired slang. He-peated is when a woman’s contribution to a meeting gets no response, but a man repeats her idea to positive acclaim. Or mansplaining, when men explain something to women in a condescending manner—regardless of her expertise in the subject.
Still, each “first” means a next. Then another. Until the people shaping conservation research, programs, and policy better reflect the society they serve. That means not only gender parity, but also diversity in socioeconomic backgrounds, race, and ethnicity. It’s important to keep in mind that while Adirondack residents remain predominantly white, the Forest Preserve is owned by the state’s entire multifarious population.
“If you represent a narrow sector, you’re going to have a very narrow base of support. And if you’re going to be successful in conservation, you need a large constituency,” says Olsen. “Success is when you get engagement and participation in conservation that lasts longer than you do—longer than your presence, longer than you live. That means collaborating, understanding, and a community that embraces conservation.”
Today, Julia Goren works less in the alpine. She’s now the education director for the Adirondack Mountain Club. In 2017, she oversaw programs that ranged from a thirty-minute presentation on Leave No Trace ethics to a five-day backpacking trip. Altogether, her programs reached twenty-three thousand people. She also staffs the Summit Steward program—and notes that women make up at least half of applicants each year.
“Right now, we’re starting at the ground level, gaining experience, and working our way up,” says Goren. “Twenty years from now, I expect to see women in very vocal positions of leadership in conservation organizations.”
For now, the march to the top continues.