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Mollie Beattie brakes for trees. Vermont's first female forest commissioner talks about her work

`TEN years ago there were only three women foresters in Vermont,'' Mollie Beattie recalls. ``It was an ongoing joke that when the first of us walked through the door at a professional meeting the registrar would ask, `Are you Lynn, Jane, or Mollie?' ``Forestry is traditionally male-dominated, but it doesn't have to be,'' she adds, and Ms. Beattie is proving the truth of her own words as Vermont's first woman commissioner of forest, parks, and recreation. Nationally as well, she's the first woman to hold an equivalent position.

Seemingly out of the blue, a couple of years ago, she was asked to send her resum'e to the governor's office. Later she was called for an interview. When she asked what it was all about, she was told she was being considered for the position of forest commissioner. Only then did she go out and buy a dress.

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``I literally didn't own a dress at the time,'' she says, explaining that in her job as a working forester, there wasn't really any need.

A tall woman with a steady gaze, warm smile, and a forthright and optimistic manner, she traded her boots, jeans, and days alone in the forest for office garb and management of a chunk of the state's bureaucracy. Her philosophy in either job is much the same. In her view, traditional forestry and politics both lack sufficient consideration of what's up ahead.

When forest management is pursued for short-term economic gain, consideration of factors like future productivity, wildlife habitat, soil fertility, and watershed preservation are problems often pushed aside for someone else to deal with later. Since 80 percent of Vermont is covered by forest and 90 percent of the forest is in private hands, the long term consequences are immense.

``A big part of my job is overseeing the management of forest land in private hands,'' Beattie explains. ``Since this is not controlled by law, we've got to educate, persuade, and use other kinds of inducement to change people's attitudes about the land - to help them understand the nature and magnitude of this precious resource.''

Much of this work is carried out by the county foresters, whom Beattie describes as being deeply involved in helping Vermont's 73,000 landowners with farseeing management.

``I keep in close touch with these people,'' she says. ``Most are friends that I've worked with for years.''

Beattie also works with loggers and representatives of the timber, wood products, and maple industries. She has regular contact with legislators, politicians, and her counterparts from other states and Canada. Her department manages all state-owned and public lands, including the 48 state parks.

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In Beattie's approach to forestry, economic goals are not achieved by heavyhanded manipulation for monetary gain that can leave the system in a weakened or disordered state.

``The nontraditional approach to forestry,'' she says, ``asks how you can best imitate the forces of nature while still achieving some of the same goals. It asks what can be learned by watching - by adjusting the system in relation to these forces. Substantive social change in politics must also be handled in much the same way.''

Coming from a childhood in the wealthy Connecticut suburb of Greenwich, the product of a proper Roman Catholic convent school with even a brief stint as fashion model, Beattie might seem an unlikely candidate for forest visionary. But after a degree in philosophy, a 1968 move to Vermont, and some years as a newspaper reporter, three weeks in Colorado changed her life.

``I went to Outward Bound as a student in 1973 and spent my first night outdoors. I loved it.'' She was offered a job and returned for the next three summers, finally becoming a mountaineering instructor at the age of 27.

During this time she visited the forestry department at the University of Vermont to ask about a course in tree identification. The professor she contacted brought up the subject of forestry and told her about a program recently developed at UVM to encourage more women to enter this field. Just at that time she was offered a position as newsperson on WCAX-TV in Burlington.

``When it came to a choice between television news broadcasting and forestry, I chose forestry,'' she says.

After receiving her degree, there came a series of jobs working in forest management. These included an environmental impact statement on a proposed wood-burning plant in Maine and research on techniques to enhance wildlife management on small tracts of land. For two years she taught forestry to landowners around the state for the Vermont Extension Service. She also co-authored ``Working With Your Woodland, A Landowner's Guide,'' published by the University Press of New England in 1983 as ``a middle way between overuse of the forest and not using it at all.''

Having developed land management programs for the Windham Foundation in Grafton, Vt., Beattie was hired as full-time forester in charge of their 2,000 acres of land. The Windham Foundation is a private entity created to revitalize the historic structures and the economy of the town of Grafton and to address statewide Vermont issues. It was here that Beattie was encouraged to pursue an idea for a series of conferences where participants grappled with ideas for meeting critical growth pressures affecting basic aspects of life within the state like open lands, employment, housing, agriculture, education, and women's issues.

``Try to think of ideal solutions in the best of all possible worlds,'' she urged the 25 attendants at each of these Grafton Conferences.

``It was a way to get people thinking in new ways about new and old problems,'' Beattie says.

While forestry is Beattie's central interest, she operates from the standpoint that this is only one of the major issues facing the state today. By nature as well as by training, she is a careful observer of the details of a situation or problem, but always maintains an awareness of its broader outlines.

``Too often we see laws passed that only nibble at the edge of large problems. They create the illusion that someone at the top knows what's going on and will see to it that it all turns out right. We've got hierarchical systems with power vested in the position rather than in ideas, and usually nobody's really in control,'' she says.

``Politics is too important to be left to traditional politicians,'' she continues. ``We need a lot of people who don't look at things in the usual way and we need them soon.''

Mollie Beattie has vision and she intends to protect it. Given the range of her background and the depth of her interest in the environment, it's not surprising that she's concerned about the danger of working indoors for too long. Even her sporty red car with an ``I Brake for Trees'' bumper sticker can't erase the two-hour drive from her office and midweek apartment to the 142 wooded acres she and her husband call home.

It's a segmented life,'' she says. ``Different clothes and different people - but on weekends I get back to the woods.''

``I can only see myself doing this kind of job for a few years,'' she adds. ``If you're working in natural resources it's critical to go back to where it all began - where your inspiration got its start. That's what keeps your fires lit.''

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