Ardent advocate: Q&A with silviculture supervisor Olivia Blizzard
By Maria Church
Olivia Blizzard, silviculture supervisor with J.D. Irving’s woodlands division in New Brunswick, has a relatable story: A young person who, despite growing up in Fredericton – this year’s CIF-designated Forestry Capital of Canada – knew next to nothing about forestry.
A chance decision to join the forestry program in university led her to become a passionate advocate for sustainable forestry practices and bringing in more women to the industry.
CFI: What drew you to forestry and your job in silviculture?
Olivia: I had no idea forestry existed. I grew up thinking that forestry was just logging like a lot of people do because we don’t necessarily see the other side of it. But I ended up working for a forestry college, MCFT [Maritime College of Forest Technology], and in the summers they would have us work with local NGOs so I was doing a lot of plot sampling, tree planting, different things, and learned about forestry. I was on a team of almost all females, including a single mom with two kids, so I had a pretty strong start to getting to see some very admirable women working in the field.
I was at school [University of New Brunswick] for physics at the time and a friend went into forestry and I was like, “I think I’ll do it!” We had no idea how awesome of a group it was until we got in there. Coming from the science program, we faced that point where we asked what was coming next, and in a science degree its often onto a masters. At that point, more school didn’t really excite me, so hearing about the job opportunities we would have after just an undergrad in forestry it was really a no-brainer. My friend found herself in a silviculture position out west now, so it’s been really neat to be able to catch up and chat about the similarities and differences of the land and programs we’re managing.
I think my passion for silviculture now comes from how diverse of a field it is. Nothing is set in stone, it’s very open to interpretation and it requires a lot of out-of-the-box thinking and long-term planning. I’m very much so problem solver so I’ve always liked that aspect.
Today I’m in sort of a hybrid role. I’m quite involved with planning right now so I’m in the field, validating data or I’m collecting inventory. I’ve been auditing quality on the ground and planning out treatments at my computer in the offseason. There’s definitely no two days that are the same.
CFI: What do you enjoy about your job?
There’s so much I love about forestry it’s hard to answer these questions! I’m such an advocate, it’s ridiculous.
I think my passion comes from stewardship for the land. And I think the people in the workplace make it a lot easier to feel that. I love getting to bounce ideas off other people. Silviculture is such a puzzle and every site is so different. Getting to have those conversations about perspectives on decisions for a site that are impacting 50 years down the road are important. I think the camaraderie and the teamwork makes that happen.
The concept of there being no one right answer motivates me everyday. We’re working on huge time scales – I’m preparing for a harvest 40 or 50 years down the road. It’s about making an informed decision based on the resources that you have available and ongoing research.
Talking about social license has been a big factor in my role as a supervisor. We’re out day to day in the woods, talking with contractors, woodlot owners and public land users. It’s probably one of the most rewarding parts of the job, getting to educate the public and have those conversations. I think the whole industry is shifting towards not beating around the bush. We’re being direct with what’s happening and I think that’s the only way that things are going to change, when people are going out on tours and seeing what we’re doing day-to-day in the operations. Until people are out there or talk to foresters, I don’t think they realize that we all share the same values.
CFI: Do you find there are certain challenges or hurdles for women to enter or stay in the industry?
I’ve been part of the fortunate generation in that we had a lot of trailblazers before us. We’ve got our foot in the door, and now it’s about opening that doorway for everyone.
I think we’re tackling a lot of major issues and, if not, they are being discussed and speaking from my experience I feel like women have the resources to voice those concerns that they might have. But now I find day-to-day it’s more about the little things. It’s framing the culture, creating a more supportive workplace, allowing women those opportunities and removing the little monotonous barriers – not the big glass ceiling-style ones.
Now it’s about pushing women to excel and giving them opportunities to be more visible. That’s one thing that I’ve noticed is there’s a lot of women in forestry, but you don’t necessarily see them running companies. So it’s getting women to that point and encouraging more women to fill the gaps we’ll be seeing with upcoming retirements.
CFI: What can companies do to attract and retain women?
My experience is definitely that comfort lies in numbers. I think having more and more representation is going to bring in more of those diverse perspectives and really create that inclusive workplace.
I had a female forester join my team this year in a leadership role and the change in my motivation – having that strong role model to look up to – was huge. I think it’s about having women in leadership positions and really giving them the opportunity to develop as a leader as they progress in their careers. Where it is a male-dominated industry, a radical shift to a diverse workplace isn’t necessarily realistic. It’s important to try to encourage women to shift into these roles, while also offering them ample support to really set them up for success.
I think we’re a good example of that. Her and I started a women’s group in the company that allows women in operational roles to get leadership opportunities and get those informal mentorships that really push you to the next level as an employee. After she joined and I realized the difference it makes having a female leader you can turn to for advice or feedback, it really motivated me to share that experience with other employees, especially young females who might need the additional confidence. Everyone has been super supportive of getting the group off the ground and all the participants are really looking forward to what’s to come.
In our field it’s rare to be in a group that’s only women in a room so to get that experience and to be able to talk freely and openly about our experiences and what we want to achieve as a group and where we see it going was really exciting.
CFI: What advice do you have for those considering a career the forest industry?
Just do it first off. Even now I’m learning daily about more and more jobs that are under the umbrella of forestry that I never would have thought of. You can go anywhere with it. I think there’s a big perspective that being in forestry means you’re going to be outside 24/7, which isn’t necessarily required. In theory you can be a forester and never leave your office. I think for a lot of people that might be a hurdle that they expect to face, but it’s not necessarily the case.
It’s now a time when creativity is really valued, especially in silviculture where those practices aren’t set in stone. There’s no blanket prescription and you can’t follow a regime perfectly, it’s always going to be variable. We need out-of-the-box thinkers in strategic planning and those diverse perspectives that oftentimes come from women. That’s definitely a big thing that I’ve noticed and really appreciated since joining the workforce.
This article is part of CFI, Pulp & Paper Canada and Canadian Biomass’ Women in Forestry series, an annual celebration of women in the industry. Find more content here and follow us on social media with the hashtag: #WomeninForestry.
Remember to join us for the Women in Forestry Virtual Summit on Mar. 7 at 11 am ET/8 am PT! It’s FREE to register. Sign up now!