Great Mountain Forest : 99 years of innovation, education
By TIM ABBOTT
October, 09, 2008
NORFOLK —More than 100 people followed the narrow gravel roads up Canaan Mountain to attend the inaugural Open Forest Day program at Great Mountain Forest in Norfolk on Sept. 28.
For some — graduates of Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies and other researchers whose field work and experiments here have reverberated worldwide — it was like a homecoming.
For others it was a chance to see one of the best kept secrets in northwest Connecticut, for while there is public access with prior permission at Great Mountain Forest, most of us valley dwellers are unaware of this extraordinary ecological and scientific resource in our midst.
Next year will make a full century since the core of Great Mountain Forest in Norfolk was acquired by U.S. Sen. Frederick C. Walcott and Starling W. Childs. These visionaries were conservation leaders in their day, and where others saw burned-over scrubland and hardscrabble farms, they saw hope for restoring wildlife that had all but vanished from the Connecticut landscape.
Back in 1909, white-tailed deer had been driven from the state, and water birds were in deep decline. Together, Walcott and Childs laid the foundation for the recovery of these species and a healthier reforested landscape. They also amassed one of the largest private landholdings in the state, now encompassing 6,041 acres in the heart of one of the largest areas of protected open space in northwest Connecticut.
Saving family lands from generation to generation is challenging at any scale. Saving Great Mountain Forest for the benefit of future generations and the regional ecology is a tremendous conservation success story and a remarkable family achievement.
In 2003, 5,383 acres of the forest were protected through a Forest Legacy working forest easement. The entire property is now owned and managed by the non-profit Great Mountain Forest Corporation, with a mission to conserve forest areas and serve as a living laboratory for environmental research.
Open Forest Day took place last week at the Yale Forestry Camp, which has been in operation at Great Mountain Forest since 1941 as a replacement for Yale holdings in northeastern Connecticut that were devastated by the 1938 hurricane.
Attendees from nearby communities and from as far away as Florida listened with rapt attention as members of the Childs family told the story of the history of land use on the mountain from the age of charcoal to the present day. Researchers from the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies, UMass Amherst and Yale University shared the results of their experiments at Great Mountain Forest. It is testimony to the quality of the lectures that even the anticipation of a delicious lunch could not prevent the audience from asking questions.
The afternoon included a variety of field walks dealing with wildlife and forest management. Participants had the opportunity to look at the landscape through the eyes of a forester and answer for themselves whether the different species they encountered were growing in cooperation or in fierce competition with each other.
Several of the foresters associated with Great Mountain Forest are members of the Forest Guild, an alliance of ecologically oriented land managers, and a longstanding commitment to close observation and scientific inquiry guides their stewardship.
Starling W. Childs II, representing the third generation of his family associated with these lands, recalled that his father Edward used to say that “there was no point in having all this if it could not be shared with others.”
Open Forest Day provided that opportunity to a great many people, many of whom are likely to return for the centennial celebrations in 2009.
The Great Mountain Forest Corp. Web site is greatmountainforest.org.