On the Job


Branching Out

Heather Berklund’s career trajectory at the state DNR has her reaching new heights in forestry management

Ashlee Weidman | On the Job | March 24, 2021

“There is a long history of state foresters that have helped shape and impact the status of our forested landscape and industry we have today,” says Heather Berklund ’00. As Wisconsin’s first female forestry chief, Berklund joins that panoply of individuals as a role model for what she hopes will be a large and diverse group of future foresters.

From a young age, Berklund found herself gravitating toward jobs and volunteer opportunities that involved working with others. From employment as a lifeguard and swim coach, whose students included handicapped individuals, to volunteering for mission trips and environmental clean-up initiatives, she had an itch to help people. In doing so, she discovered that she benefitted as well. “Giving back to the greater good helped put balance into my life,” she says.

When considering career paths as a high school student, Berklund at first had defaulted to more traditional service-oriented jobs. “Like many other girls growing up in this era, I gravitated towards picturing myself as a teacher or nurse, careers that were very familiar,” she admits.

Her deep appreciation for nature and being outdoors also led to another career conclusion. “I knew I didn’t want to be in an office setting all day.”

Combining teaching and nature, she at first thought of pursuing environmental education. After a year at the University of Wisconsin-Baraboo, however, she realized she wanted to explore options in natural resource management, which lead her to UW-Stevens Point.

“I appreciated the focus on more of the technical field skills, diversity of courses and student organizations to get involved with, along with a more intimate campus,” she says of UWSP. “It felt more like a community.”

A believer in the maxim that one can only get out of an experience what one puts into it, Berklund joined many student-led organizations while on campus, including the Society of American Foresters, the Student Society of Arboriculture and Fire Crew. “Taking on leadership roles in those organizations enhanced some of the skills needed for working in collaborative teams and improved basic communication skills within a variety of audiences,” she says.

She notes that participating in the Treehaven Summer Camp helped shape the technical skills that helped her land a job as a field forester with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources shortly after graduation. In addition to what she had learned at UWSP, on-the-job training and working with senior foresters and other mentors within the DNR helped her thrive as a forester. Since then, she has held several different positions within the department, including area leader and deputy division administrator.

“For the bulk of my field career and early supervisory roles, I was working in all aspects of our integrated field programs, and loved it all,” she says.

Berklund has enjoyed working in diverse locations with coworkers and various partners, including private and public landowners, throughout the state “to actively manage and maintain a healthy future forest” in Wisconsin. Then there are the other, more soul-stirring aspects of the job. She fondly remembers “long days marking timber on a beautiful fall day or trekking through the deep snow on a quiet winter day, where your senses are truly alive and at peace amongst nature.”

Berklund’s rise through the ranks within the DNR has culminated in her being named chief state forester in October 2020. COVID-19 restrictions had put a damper on celebrating the promotion with her many coworkers at the DNR, so instead, she opted for sitting around an outdoor campfire with a few close, yet socially distanced, friends.

“My family is super proud and supportive,” she adds, although, “To my kids, I’m still just Mom.”

The significance of being the first woman to hold this position is not lost on Berklund, although she doesn’t see gender as being the only thing that defines her on the job. “I have worked hard and earned the respect of numerous partners and coworkers throughout our forest community that continue to support me in this role,” she says.

Still, she says, being a trailblazer in this respect certainly has its advantages.

“There have been and are many women who have helped pave the way within the forestry sector throughout Wisconsin’s history,” she says, “sometimes not getting the recognition they deserve. I hope I can help be a role model for other women to take on leadership roles within natural resource professions, and that young girls can also see themselves in an environmental or forestry career.”

Bolstering diversity within her department, and throughout the DNR in general, is among Berklund’s top goals as chief state forester. Also prominent on her agenda as chief are monitoring the state’s forest-product markets and overseeing climate initiatives in conjunction with the governor’s office. She also has plans regarding education and outreach efforts aimed at building interest in natural resource management careers, particularly among underrepresented populations in the field of forestry.

“Currently we are working on efforts to build relationships and partnerships with campuses across the nation, including historically black colleges and universities, to help make connections and understand how Wisconsin can compete in recruiting future professionals that want to come to our beautiful state,” she says.

Her pitch: “A career in the natural resource profession is investing in the future, investing in something greater than yourself, and personally rewarding!”

Certainly Berklund believes her choice of career has proved very satisfying.

“Working in the public sector has granted me the opportunity to work with such a wide variety of partners within the forestry community, she says. “It has been the people I have met along the way, the stories shared, the collaborative teams that have been the best reward.”

Jeanne Nagle contributed to this story.


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