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From Laissez Faire to Leslie Knope: County Forester Brittany VanderWall on Showing Up

I've been getting into TED Talks a lot lately, because my first job is as a stay-at-home-mom, and living in Belknap through the winter means a lot of hanging out and watching YouTube, right? So, by falling down the "suggested video" rabbit hole, I became obsessed with some of the more inspirational Ted Talks. I really like the talks on happiness, because there's just something wholesome about listening to people explain how they found the path to living their best life.

Brittany VanderWall, our fearless county forester and local community theater star, could give a killer TED Talk on happiness.

If you've had the pleasure of interacting with Brittany, whether it be through forestry business, the theater, or simply around Rogers City, you probably know what I'm talking about. There's an energy she exudes, and an openness that is completely infectious. I left our interview last week feeling refreshed, and lucky for having gotten the opportunity to get to know such an inspiring force in our community.

Originally from Muskegon, Brittany moved to Rogers City shortly after graduating from Michigan Tech. Although she's not a female entrepreneur, which is usually the focus of these blog spotlights, she was recommended to me as a person of interest by Valerie Meharg, a local doula from last month's spotlight. Valerie said that Brittany is "killing it in a typically male-dominated field," and suggested I might find it interesting talking to her. I thought it could be beneficial to have a slightly different perspective featured, and I am SO glad Valerie gave me this lead. Brittany is a great reminder that the path to career satisfaction, happiness, or personal fulfillment isn't necessarily about pursuing a goal singlemindedly, or pushing yourself every day to get where you want to be. Beautiful and meaningful things can arise from appreciating and enjoying the adventure that life is.

Why did you choose Rogers City?

I feel such a deep connection here that I never imagined I would feel to a town, because I never felt that growing up. Maybe kids just don't have that context? Love my family, miss my family, Muskegon's getting cooler...but overall, I very much like Rogers City. I'd rather breathe in the Straits air and just enjoy the forest than go out bar hopping.

What made you go into forestry?

There was no logic. Seriously. I love telling this story. When I was in high school, I did robotics. When I was captain, I would always talk to the judges, and I remember the 'people' part of it most. Not so much the analytical, "build the robot" part. I mean, that part was cool, but when you go to the shows and you meet with the judges and you're telling your story, that was the part that stuck. So, I wanted to go to Tech because it looked cool. And it was free to apply, there was no application fee. There we go, accepted, boom. I wanted to go there for engineering. Then I got there and was like, "actually, I'm kinda dumb at math."

So I literally was like, "what can I do here?" I want to go to Tech, what can I do that's meaningful. So, looking through the catalog, and...forestry. I Googled "forestry" and thought, "okay, let's try it." I showed up on my first day...and I swear that everyone else in my class at least had some idea. I didn't know anything. Blank slate. My first day in Field Techniques, he was like, "here's a compass, here's a map, there's a point in the woods, go find it." And I found it and thought, "whoa, this is really cool." And just...the rest is history! There was not a grand plan. I kinda love that, though. I like that because it's relatable to a lot of people. You don't want people to believe that forestry is only something that's available to people who grew up in it. You can come from literally a blank slate, and make it work, and enjoy it.

Have you always been a natural leader?

Yeah, when I was in high school, I was captain of our robotics team. So that was where I kinda got my start, as captain. And then I was on the leadership team for marching band. I've had lots of experience, and I'm not afraid to talk to people.

(As a side note, Brittany also recently won the 2019 National Leadership Award from the American Forest Foundation. So, it's safe to say she's a hell of a leader.)

I saw on the Presque Isle Conservation website you play jazz trombone. How does one even get into that?

Fifth grade was when I started playing. That was when we got first exposed to playing an instrument. Really, there was very little thought in fifth grade as to what instrument I was going to play. I think it was ninth grade I joined the jazz band, and I sucked. By tenth grade, I was first chair. But really, it started as a child making a scattershot decision.

And you do community theater, and play ukelele?

Well, I "play." I know a lot of chords, and I can hamfist my way through a song. My biggest hobby is actually playing video games. I'm not that outdoorsy. I like the outdoors, but...

Tell me about your job.

My job in particular is unique. A lot of forestry has to do with heavy field work, like painting trees or taking inventory. My job is very people-oriented. I do education and outreach, and public speaking, and that's not really typical of my profession. Typical is more the field side of it. I mean, foresters interact with people, but mine is just so entrenched--like any person who walks in that door, I've just got to be ready to answer their questions, or admit I don't know the answer. I love to talk to people, I could talk all day.

The PI Conservation website lists some of the commendations and awards you've got, and it seems like there's a lot. How did you get so involved in so many projects?

I'll say that it's a cool side effect of my job that they encourage participation. I'm the state chair of the Michigan Tree Farm Organization. It's cool! Being the chair, you really get to decide the direction of the organization. And I feel like the Tree Farm Organization, it was very different when I showed up than where it is now. It has been the coolest thing that is so directly related to my job. It's all about private landowners, and that's who I work with. People think, "tree farm. You're farming trees." And I guess, but it's also about the biotic components. You don't have to be turning a profit, it could be, "I've got streambank erosion. I'm planting trees to reduce streambank erosion, and I'm doing good things for the fish." That's a tree farmer. It's not about trees necessarily; there's more than just the trees. Being chair of that organization has been a thrill.

This organization, too, the American Forest Foundation is who umbrellas Tree Farm, asked me to be on their national woodland operating committee. It's a bunch of people who advise them on projects, or anything relating to Tree Farm. It's like a big think tank. And I'm by far the youngest. The youngest to win this award (2019 National Leadership Award), and when I say the youngest, I mean the next youngest is probably mid-40s. And again, I'm just like, "what is my skill here? Am I just good at talking to people?"

These moments, when people ask for my "story," I just think...I haven't been out of high school ten years. I'm just doing my best. Seeking opportunities that make sense, showing up for things, being willing to try new things, being willing to speak up when something is wrong. And for a lot of people, I think it's hard to get out of the comfort zone, and for young women especially, to comment on something that you think is wrong, or needs improvement. Because people might look at you and think, "well, you're just a young woman, what do you know?" But you have to say, "well, I know some things!"

I think part of the fascination with you is that you're doing it here, and we never really had that. Growing up here, we didn't really get a lot of young, local women showing up to talk to us in high school. And you came from somewhere else and chose Rogers City, that's significant.

My profession has been a revolving door. No forester before me has stayed longer than a year. And that's part of the nature of my profession, because it's a grant. Every year I just cross my fingers and hope. I've had people say to me now, "you're a local." And that means a lot! When I first started, I did not know that it would turn into this. I was so lonely when I first moved here. I didn't feel like I knew enough to be a professional forester, but I was like, "here we go."

I love to talk about Rogers City everywhere I go. I love it here, I really do. In the community theater there's all these young teenagers, especially girls. And I love to talk to them about forestry, and I never really realized that it's being a role model. We need more people that are young, women, and decide to stay here even though it's, yeah, rural, and there are no delivery places. There's lots of life here. I leave and I can't wait to come back home. You can just really be a part of the community here, and I appreciate that so much.

I have to ask you this, and I'm sorry, much do you connect with Leslie Knope? Do you watch Parks and Rec?

Are you kidding me? That is my favorite show on television. I feel like a mix between her, April, and Ron. I love to eat bacon and drink Scotch, so there's that. And the Leslie stuff, also, but I relate to April a lot, being a little weird and sarcastic. I relate to that show being a public servant. There's moments in that show that I'm like..."that's too real."

What sort of challenges do you run into as a young female in a field like this?

I would say there's multiple answers that I have to that. I realize that sexism is very real, and young women struggle in male dominated fields. But my experience has been a little different. I think part of it is, I don't care. I feel immune to that. When I go out to a property with a landowner, any preconceived notion they may have had is gone when I start talking. They realize, "oh, she knows things." Being tall may play a part. I tower over most people.

I would say a key challenge that I deal with is, I have to be able to communicate with anyone who walks through the door. Be it a young person, an older landowner, a woman, a group of people, a family...I've met with hundreds of landowners in the time that I've been here, and they all have a different story. You have to meet them where they are. And you have to be really keen to what their needs are, you have to be listening to what they expect from you. Don't talk over them, or down to them. Meet them where they are.

It's hard for me to suggest this because I don't want to minimize the struggles that young women face. And I don't want to put the onus on women, like we have to steel ourselves against sexism, almost do. You have to be able to dig through the layers of maybe misconceptions, and find the person underneath. There's always a way to connect with people. Have a one-on-one, person-to-person conversation.

Are there any weird sort of "forestry" tidbits that the average person may not know? Is Sasquatch real?

Hmm. I don't know if there's anything so terribly unique here that I would bring it up. There are unique landforms in northeast Michigan, but one thing I like to talk about is clearcutting. I think people misunderstand. From somebody on the outside, they look at clearcutting as a very extreme deforestation. Like you're removing the trees and killing the wildlife and taking it away, but one thing I try to explain is that there are different cuts for different things. In northeast Michigan, we do a lot of clearcutting! One reason is, we have a lot of aspen, which responds specifically to clearcutting. You think of a hardwood forest, like maple. You don't cut a whole maple forest down. And then you take that perspective and you apply it to everything, which isn't the case. One thing I think is important for people to realize is, what you see is not necessarily the case. Wildlife actually prefer young forests; they're more dynamic.

How did you get involved with the National Tree Farm?

For Tree Farm, specifically, in 2015 I went to an inspector training, like a lot of my peers. They kind of encourage us to get those certifications and become knowledgeable. The current chair, I started talking to him, like, "what's this about?" And he said, "well, you could be the next chair!" And we kinda chuckled about it, and then I thought, "I wonder if he's serious?" So I called into a meeting, then I went to a meeting, and again he was like, "Hey, it's Brittany, she's going to be the next chair!" And that was where the seed was planted. Why not, you know? So I showed up and was unanimously voted to be the next chair. They sent me to the National Leadership Conference in Seattle, and that was my first leadership conference in 2016. And as chair, I wasn't afraid to change things. Change has to happen, or organizations get stagnant.

I showed up, and I was willing, and sometimes it's as easy as that. And you can show up, and be willing, and have it not come to fruition. And just be an observer. But if you're willing to say, "maybe I don't know that much, but I'll keep showing up and keep learning," it's not that hard to get involved. I feel like any young person could go to their township office and run for a township position. Any local position, any elected position, you don't have to be an expert. They're all just regular people that showed up and wanted to make a difference, or try something, or make something better. You can be 18 and want to do those things. You can be 20 and want to do those things. You don't have to be older to want to give your opinion, and become an expert. You just have to be willing. You just have to keep rolling. Don't take yourself too serious. Take yourself serious enough, but not so serious that you can't keep learning what you don't know.

It's gotta feel good to know that all these random roll of the die have led to you finding your home and your calling.

It's cool to have these accomplishments, but I can't let these define me. I'm still a person who likes to go home and put my feet up and play video games. People maybe stereotype or have an assumption that to be chair of an organization or vice chair of whatever, you have to be so amazing. No. It's not unreachable for anyone, they just have to be open to new experiences, and willing to grow, and do hard things sometimes.


If you're not inspired as hell right now, I don't know what to do with you. I think Brittany said it better than I ever could, so I'll wrap it up quickly. Get out of your comfort zone. Try new things, explore, and don't be afraid to grow and learn. We're all just people, so be the kind who's not afraid to get out there and make a difference.

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