Heather Berklund never envisioned herself as the Chief State Forester.
She had worked for the DNR forestry division for two decades in the Northwoods, but didn’t have her mind set on the top job.
“I would say it was never on my radar that I would ever be talking to you in this role or be in this position,” Berklund said on a recent interview, conducted while snowshoeing through the Northern Highland-American Legion State Forest near Woodruff.
But hard work and dedication paid off, and the DNR put her on top of the Rhinelander-based state division of forestry last October.
If she had gotten the job just a few years ago, Berklund’s DNR division would have been like every other one: based in downtown Madison, a few blocks from the capitol.
But in 2017, the state government moved the forestry headquarters north after an idea hatched by politicians gained favor.
Gov. Scott Walker actually included the mandate in his budget.
“In this budget, we require the head of the state forestry department, the state forester, to go and be north of [Highway] 29,” Walker told WXPR at the time. “We think that’s important to helping to manage not only our state forests, but to work with our partners in the forestry and paper products industry.”
In October 2017, Walker was in Rhinelander to announce the city had beaten out Hayward and Wausau for the honor.
“I think it’s a great opportunity for the division to be able to relocate its headquarters here north,” said Fred Souba, the Chief State Forester at the time. “It will allow us to be closer to many of our stakeholders and customers that we deal with in the forest products industry.”
The Rhinelander office already had some forestry employees at the time, but the DNR says 26 total forestry employees now work there. In addition to the Chief State Forester, some other leadership positions moved north, too.
It’s the outcome Oneida County Economic Development Corporation Executive Director Jeff Verdoorn wanted.
“You don’t hear a lot about it, because these guys are out and managing our forests, but being here, just the access part is big,” Verdoorn said.
So, in Berklund’s eyes, how is the move working out, now that she’s on top of the division?
“I think there’s been some benefits there as far as some of the closer partners that are located here, north of the tension zone,” she said. “Currently, I’m feeling like we’re in a good place.”
But part of her was skeptical at first.
A major role of the Chief State Forester is to connect with other agencies and with lawmakers, and now forestry headquarters are a lot farther from the capitol than they used to be.
Like for everyone else during a pandemic, videoconferencing has been a godsend.
“Different models can work. We don’t all necessarily have to be in one location,” Berklund said.
Among her major priorities, Berklund includes maintaining partnerships, public education about forests, forestry’s role in addressing climate change, and diversity among people working in the field.
She’s in a unique position to comment on the last priority, diversity.
Berklund is the first female Chief State Forester in the century-old history of the division, a point she notes, but a point she doesn’t want to serve as her entire identity.
“I hope that someday, we’re not talking about gender or race,” she said. “We can just say, ‘Wow, they have the skills to do the job.’ I don’t want that to get lost in the conversation. Even though I am the first female, [I hope people say,] ‘Wow, look at what she did, and look at her background, and she has the skills to help lead this program.’”
Berkland is hoping more young people of all backgrounds find a passion similar to hers.
“I’m feeling like with some of the next generation, the younger folks, with them growing up with the conversations around the importance of our environment, potential climate issues, that they’ll have this recognition of, ‘Oh, I can do something in this profession,’” she said.
Just maybe, a few of them will end up working at the new DNR forestry headquarters in Rhinelander.