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Colorado State Forest Service News

Women’s Forest Congress Provided Inspiration & Empowerment

Written by Natalie Lewis, Student Communications Assistant

ballroom filled with women seated at round tables and a stage at the front of the room with two large screens next to it.

The Women’s Forest Congress welcomed about 400 female and non-binary attendees to Minneapolis in October 2022. Photo courtesy of

“Breathe in, 2, 3. Hold, 2, 3. Exhale, 2, 3, 4,” said Danielle Ardrey, standing on stage at the inaugural Women’s Forest Congress in Minneapolis, Minn. Danielle is the Youth Education and Conservation Specialist for the Colorado State Forest Service, and she led the cohort of more than 400 female and non-binary conference participants in one of many brain breaks.

The Women’s Forest Congress was no ordinary conference. Leadership workshops, diversity seminars and industry success stories were interspersed with massive group breathing exercises and Zumba breaks throughout three days in Minneapolis.

seven women smile at the camera in front of a large screen that says Welcome to the Women's Forest Congress.
Seven women represented the Colorado State Forest Service at the inaugural Women’s Forest Congress. Photo by Natalie Lewis.

These intentional and well-structured activities made the conference unique, but what differentiated this event from all others was that for the first time in many of the attendees’ lives, the Women’s Forest Congress created a female-dominated safe space in the field of forestry.

As each speaker took the podium throughout the Congress, they commented on the spectacle of viewing the faces of 400 female trailblazers in forestry. The speakers ranged from Jackie Heinricher, race car driver and biotech startup founder, to Rita Hites, President and CEO of the American Forest Foundation. Each speaker highlighted that as more women gain a seat at the table in forestry, our forests and our communities will be better off.

Almost 500 women attended the Women’s Forest Congress. Among those trailblazers were seven women representing the Colorado State Forest Service. The women from the CSFS included Kamie Long, Danielle Ardrey, Mercedes Siegle-Gaither, Audrey Miles-Cherney, Maria Gaetani, Ashley Garrison and Natalie Lewis.

A New Type of Conference

Moving through various workshops and opportunities at the conference, these seven women experienced a new genre of conference: one that focused on the whole person. Attendees benefited from conference sessions on leadership exploration, inclusive teams, and building a diverse forest sector. Then, participants could choose to spend their break time painting in the Creativity Space, getting a chair massage in the Wellness Lounge, sharing newfound ideas in the Innovation Lab or fostering new connections in the Career Exploration Experience.

The combination of brain breaks and themed rooms allowed participants to stop and take a breath while also thinking deeply about how the Women’s Forest Congress had impacted them.

Danielle was inspired by the passion and energy she felt from the conference:

“I think my biggest takeaway from the conference was the passion of the speakers, whether they spoke about a topic I loved or did not know about. Everyone who was on stage was like ‘I’m so excited to see this group of women,’ and it did not get old hearing that because it was such a unique experience.”

Maria Gaetani, Research Biomass Associate, shared her feelings of empowerment when she realized that she was no longer “one of a kind” in a professional space.

“During my freshman orientation, we participated in a session where the moderator had us imagine what it would be like to be in a room where everyone was different than you. They went through some common ‘differences’ we might experience in college – but I didn’t have to close my eyes, I didn’t have to imagine. Then, as now, I am often in spaces where I’m ’one of a kind.’  To be in a space where that wasn’t the case allowed a deep shift in my perspective on the power of inclusion in professional and academic settings,” Maria said.

From both Maria’s and Danielle’s unique and empowering takeaways from the Women’s Forest Congress, we can see the importance in providing safe and inclusive spaces for women in natural resource fields. The energy within each room was fueled by a collective passion to create change within our sector, redefining how we operate, collaborate and succeed.

A Source of Inspiration

woman smiles at camera while painting a canvas.
Danielle takes a break in the Creativity Space. Photo by Natalie Lewis.

I also walked always from the conference with a unique perspective. As both a natural resources student and a CSFS employee, I felt a sense of hope leaving the conference. Throughout my experiences, I have always heard about the male-dominated nature of working in the industry; however, this experience showed me we’re moving away from that narrative. As I move forward into my career, I will be able to work in an environment where I am less likely to be questioned because of my gender.

There is still plenty to be done to pave the way for true gender equality and women’s empowerment in natural resources, but we are taking great steps towards progress at this very moment. I feel empowered, I feel inspired and I feel hopeful about my future and the future of all the other women working to foster change in our industry.

The Women’s Forest Congress displayed just how much women are ready and able to bring to the forestry industry. The flow of ideas, inspiration and empowerment through this space was simply a preview of what is to come if we continue uplifting women in forestry and natural resources. Let us move forward and take what we have learned to transform this industry for the better.