Filmmaker Finds Lost Stories Documentary Shows How Women Helped Shape Forest Policy, Practices
When Mabel Gray climbed atop a large stump overlooking Idaho’s Clearwater National Forest in 1902, she became the nation’s first paid forest fire lookout.
But despite months at the top, her story and those of thousands of pioneering women are overshadowed by tales of ranchers, loggers, farmers and miners - the men who shaped Idaho’s rugged landscape.
“Where were the women?” University of Idaho forest geneticist Lauren Fins asks in her 30-minute documentary premiering tonight in Moscow.
“Idaho Women and the Land - Creating a Balance” is the result of a project Fins started five years ago to highlight women’s role in North Idaho land development.
Fins has been working on the documentary in hopes it will be aired on Idaho public television, and in classrooms and libraries, to augment what’s taught about forestry, women and the West.
“You sort of learn this chronology of dates, battles, presidents and kings,” Fins said. “But you don’t really learn about how people lived in relation to the women - the homes and what people were doing in the quiet times as opposed to the big, dramatic historical events.”
In 1860, when Idaho’s territory included Montana and most of Wyoming, there were 6,000 to 10,000 American Indians and 31,000 settlers living in Idaho. Of them, only about 1,000 were women.
They usually set up homes, cooked and were in charge of the family’s basic survival, Fins said.
The film includes the words of Nelle Portrey Davis, the Bonners Ferry farmer who wrote “Stump Ranch Pioneer,” describing agricultural life in the 1930s.
Photographer Jane Gay’s 1890s documentation of Nez Perce women’s lives is in the video, as are clips from filmmaker Nell Shipman’s 1920s silent wilderness dramas, produced from her Priest River studio.
But unlike Shipman’s overtly environmental message, Fins urges balance between the use and protection of natural resources.
The documentary is her attempt to shape public opinion at a time when trust in the scientific community’s research seems to be declining, she said.
“I could have done a study to show that forest practices cause much less erosion than agriculture, but no matter how many studies you do, and how many figures you give people, they don’t want to hear it,” Fins said. “They’d rather get their information in an entertaining format. This is my way of discussing forestry in a nonconfrontational, enjoyable way.”
The film ends with the words of several “modern pioneers,” including UI landscape planner Wendy McClure, writer Kim Barnes whose memoir “In the Wilderness,” was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize, and organic farmer Mary Butters of Moscow.
While there’s a new movement to get out women’s stories of the West, the bigger challenge will be changing how we teach history, said Washington State University professor Sue Armitage, who edits “Frontiers,” a national journal on Women’s Studies.
Just as interesting as the explorations and conquests are the stories of how settlers came here and made the West their home, Armitage said.
“More and more people are telling them, and Lauren’s a good example of that,” Armitage said. “But the real breakthrough hasn’t come yet. Instead of being treated as exceptions to the story, women’s history has to become part of the story.”
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MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: Premiere The documentary premieres tonight at 7 in the UI administration building auditorium.
This sidebar appeared with the story: Premiere The documentary premieres tonight at 7 in the UI administration building auditorium.