The Social Worker Turned Forester Teaching Women to Steward Maine’s Woods

Pam Wells is building a flourishing legacy on a once-ailing woodlot.

By Ron Joseph
Photographed by Michael D. Wilson
Clad in an orange helmet, chaps, and steel-toed boots, Pam Wells surveys the students in her Women and Our Woods workshop. “Today, we’ll cover all aspects of safely operating a chainsaw,” she announces. “In the male-dominated logging profession, a chainsaw doesn’t give a damn which sex is operating it.” She helps the women into their safety gear and guides them as they take turns cutting “thin cookies” from a 16-foot log using Wells’s two professional-grade Stihls. There’s a fair amount of cheering as the cookie pile grows on the forest floor.

Pam WellsTeaching women the basics of harvesting timber is just one of the activities 60-year-old Wells carries out at her Wells Demonstration Forest, a 1,058-acre parcel straddling the line of Milford and Greenfield, just northeast of Old Town. When she and her husband, Bryan, bought the land in 2004, it had been all but clear-cut, its high-grade timber removed by a logging company, with little regard for ecological health. But Wells saw an opportunity to show how forest restoration and good stewardship benefit not only Maine’s flora, fauna, and fisheries, but also its citizens. She and Bryan took on substantial debt to purchase the land, and today, the recovering forest is open to the public, with trails designed to highlight woodland ecology and sustainable forestry practices.

The work is a fulfillment of a lifelong dream. Wells grew up in Bangor in a family that struggled to keep bills paid and food on the table. Her family bounced from one short-term rental to another, and Wells was a surrogate parent to her younger sister by the time she was a pre-teen. The Queen City’s forests were a place of solace. “The woods were my refuge,” she says. “Kicking acorns and pine cones, I promised myself one day I’d own a forest.”

As a UMaine student in the late ’70s, Wells briefly studied forestry, but women were a rarity in the field then, and Wells eventually shifted to a career in social work, where she thought she’d find more opportunity. After buying her woodlot 15 years ago, she reenrolled in UMaine forest-management classes.

Restoring the forest is therapeutic for Wells, who loves nothing more than thinning, maintaining trails, and gauging water quality on Sunkhaze Stream, which meanders through her property on its way to the adjacent Sunkhaze Meadows National Wildlife Refuge. She loves photographing wildlife around the property and donates her images to conservation orgs like the Natural Resources Council of Maine and the Maine Tree Foundation. In 2017, the Maine Forest Service honored her as Tree Farmer of the Year, an award that included a trip to meet Maine’s delegation in DC. To her delight, she discovered a photo she’d taken, of a bobcat, hanging in Senator Angus King’s office.

Wells is grateful for the recognition, but she says her real reward comes from her mentoring work with would-be foresters. Many of the women with whom she’s bushwhacked through her forest — lugging increment borers, Biltmore sticks, and other silvicultural tools — have gone on to work as professional foresters. “Helping these women achieve their forestry career dreams keeps me motivated,” she says. “Now, those female professionals are an inspiration to first-year women forestry students. How wonderful is that?”

Read more about the Mainers we saluted in our November 2019 Giving Back Issue, all doing their part to make the Pine Tree state a better place.

Plus, nine nonprofit organizations making a big impact. [Sponsored]