By Lea Sloan

Hester Turner
Turner in Iceland

In 1973, Hester Turner broke a nearly century-old glass ceiling when she became the first woman board member of American Forests, then known as the American Forestry Association (AFA). And, in January 1980, she became the first woman chairman of the Board of Directors. She celebrated another monumental milestone on January 31, 2017, when this still-spirited, vivacious and articulate leader was feted upon the occasion of her 100th birthday.

In 1980, American Forests magazine ran the following introduction to Hester as the new board chair (excerpted) in Vol. 86, No. 2:

“Dr. Hester L. Turner, former National Executive Director of the Camp Fire Girls, has been elected president of The American Forestry Association. Turner, a member of the AFA Board of Directors since 1973 and a Vice President of the organization for the past two years, was chosen to lead our 80,000 citizen-member association by its Directors, meeting in Charleston, South Carolina.

A member of the Oregon and Arizona bar associations, Dr. Turner holds four degrees, a B.S. from Our Lady of the Lake College in her native San Antonio, Texas, an M.A. from Southwest Texas State College ; a J.D. from the University of Arizona and an Ed.D. from Oregon State University.

She has been the recipient of the U.S. Department of Defense Medal of Distinguished Public Services and the University of Arizona’s 1978 Distinguished Citizen Award. She is the mother of four grown children, including twin girls, and presently resides in New York City. 

Those are the impressive but impersonal details about our new President. There is much more substance to Hester Turner. Meet her for the first time and you’re certain to be greeted with a genuine smile. Speak to her and you get the definite impression that what you’re saying is important to her — that you’re really being listened to. Listen to her and you can’t help but be aware of the qualities of enthusiasm, positiveness and common sense.”

Hester’s own editorial in the same issue affirms that assessment.

She wrote, “Major human achievements over the centuries have been accomplished by people who believe the impossible was merely difficult.”

Hester continues to exemplify that observation. Raised in Texas, she grew up in a landscape that she describes as being nearly impossible for trees as well. A pecan, fig, loquat and cypress grew in their yard by the river and offered welcome shade from the relentless sun and heat. It made her concerned for trees and appreciative of their gifts.

Later living in Portland, Ore., she raised her children to appreciate trees, learning their names and recognizing their characteristics, including the feel of their bark. One of her sons later held a job manning a forest fire lookout station, and one of her daughters married a forester.

As Dean of Students at Lewis & Clark College, Hester came to the attention of the college president, who recommended her for a newly open position on the board at the AFA. The organization was specifically looking for a woman board member in this era, with the country — and the world — beginning to emerge from a dark age for women to finally start to recognize their value in leadership positions.

The pathway into her board position required a pioneering spirit. Hester describes attending her first board meeting in Washington, D.C. under executive director Bill Towell. At that juncture, AFA was headquartered in a mansion on 18th Street with an impressive ballroom and grand spiral staircase that were not well suited to accommodating their offices, nor those of the other businesses to whom they rented space downstairs. As lunch hour neared, wives of the Board members passed by the door to the meeting room and Towell motioned to Hester to take her leave. She looked at him, not understanding.

Towell said, “Dr. Turner, you’re now excused to go to lunch (with the ladies).”

“But, what are the rest of you doing?” Hester asked.

“We stay here. We have business to conduct,” was the reply.

“Well, I’m a member of the board,” said Hester. “I’ll stay.”

And so she did.

In Hester’s time on the board, American Forests went through many transitions in addition to the name change. The organization began hosting world-learning and knowledge-dissemination trips, inviting members along to listen to lectures and, with guides, explore private forests and woodlands, places that are inaccessible to the public. Two dozen people would come along on the two-week trips, such as those to Finland, Sweden, Norway and Denmark.

Hester is most proud of the CityGreen program that was developed at American Forests during her tenure, an early technology used to measure tree canopy and calculate its effects on heat and cooling cities, a precursor to the development of iTree. She feels that climate change and its effects on people, cities and forests is one of the very most urgent issues of our time.

That said, it is with regret that Hester says that she doesn’t believe that public understanding has advanced very much since her days on the board, regarding the critical importance of trees and forests to maintaining the health of our environment. There is so much work left to do for those of us who follow in her footsteps, as well as to believe that what we face is merely difficult.

Lea Sloan writes from Washington, D.C. and is American Forests’ vice president of communications.