The Great Mountain Forest, which today encompasses approximately 6,000 acres, is located in the northwestern hills of Connecticut in the towns of Norfolk and Canaan. For many years the largest portion of the forest was owned by the Hunts Lyman and the Barnum Richardson Iron Companies, and most of the forest was repeatedly cut for charcoal with which to smelt iron ore from the hills to the west. During the charcoaling days, forest fires burned frequently and extensively in the cut over hills. In addition to this, most of the hemlock stands were felled to provide tanbark for the local tanneries. Thus in 1909, when Senator Frederick C. Walcott and Starling W. Childs acquired the first parcels of land, much of the area was reduced to burned-over scrub and brush land. By this time, the original composition of the forest was greatly altered, dominated by shade intolerant species including pin cherry, aspen and gray birch. The disappearance soon after of the American chestnut, which was in abundance over much of the area, further reduced the forest’s potential.
Edward C. “Ted” Childs (right), son of Starling W. Childs, took over his father’s half interest in the property and together with Senator Walcott, continued to add additional tracts of cut-over charcoal lands that were being sold off by the former Hunts Lyman and Barnum Richardson Iron Companies as well as abandoned farms. Ted Childs eventually bought-out the Walcott interest in much of the forest and with additional acquisitions increased the acreage of the forest to its present day size. Softwood plantations were established beginning in 1919 and more were added over the years as abandoned old fields were acquired on into the 1950’s. Over 325 acres were planted and managed for high quality White pine, Norway spruce, Doug fir and Red pine. Additionally, experimental out plantings of exotic conifers add scientific interest and diversity to the mix of softwood plantings. Over 100 different species of coniferous plantings are maintained as provenance studies and seed sources for potential future plantings.
In general, the Great Mountain Forest covers a broad upland of heavily glaciated crystalline rock. Elevations range from 1,200 feet to nearly 1,800 feet except at the southwestern extremity where the upland drops sharply to the ancient limestone formations of the Housatonic Valley with an elevation of just under 700 feet. There is a maintained network of 13 miles of gravel roads on the forest that provide access for forest management, fire control and research activities as well as passive recreational activities.
Perhaps the most important single factor during the past 100 years has been the elimination of fire. With the elimination of wildfires as well as careful forest stewardship practices, the forest has regenerated and has again become productive timberland. The forest now is mainly composed of transition hardwoods, with a strong representation over much of the area of northern hardwoods mixed with hemlock and white pine. Native stands of red spruce and red pine can also be found. At the lower elevations fronting the Housatonic Valley, some typical Appalachian hardwoods appear, such as tulip poplar, black and chestnut oaks, various hickories, dogwood and sassafras.
A 1948 cruise of the property indicated a standing merchantable volume of 30 million board feet. A 1961 cruise indicated that the merchantable volume had increased to 50 million board feet. Significant oak mortality to Gypsy moth caterpillars in the late 1960’s resulted in substantial loss of red oak sawtimber on the order of 5 million board feet or more. The most recent cruise of the forest conducted in 2000 indicated that the forest still maintains in excess of 50 million board feet of merchantable sawtimber with a standing value in excess of $8 million. The average per acre volume is approximately 8,000 board feet/acre sawtimber and 12.2 cords/acre. Annual growth is estimated at 1 million board feet. Annual harvests rarely exceed 250,000 board feet with the exception of a salvage harvest of the scale insect infested red pine plantations in the mid to late 1990’s.
In the more remote sections, protected by swamps and rough terrain, there are a few remnants of timber over 350 years old that were left untouched during the charcoaling and tanbark era. Large even-aged blocks of timber in the 100-120 year age class prevail on a large portion of the forest. With careful forest management these lands can provide valuable forest products. Through sustainable forest management, timber harvesting provides a source of economic stability. Non-timber forest products are also utilized to provide income for the forest, including maple syrup production, witch hazel and Christmas tree production.
Wildlife management and research has been conducted throughout the history of the forest. Under careful protection, wildlife has returned to the area in increasing numbers. Wild turkey, white-tailed deer, coyote, black bear and moose have all established resident populations once again. In fact, today the deer and beaver activities have necessitated the use of special forest management practices. A well-managed deer hunting program keeps the population in check as well as provides recreational hunting opportunities for nearly 20 hunters per season. There are 7 ponds on the property and numerous areas of wetland and riparian habitat. These, along with some 40 acres of beaver flows, afford an excellent habitat for waterfowl, and provide some measure of flood and fire control.
In 1941, the Yale School of Forestry began using the newly constructed Yale Forestry Camp facilities located on the Great Mountain Forest. In the 1940’s and on into the 1960’s the camp was used extensively for field training for forestry students and is still used today by Yale during its summer field training program. Research and educational activities have been continuously maintained through cooperative agreements with various institutions such as Yale University, UCONN, UMASS, Boston University, Institute of Ecosystem Studies and The Nature Conservancy. Endangered species observed on the forest include the timber rattlesnake and bald eagle in addition to several invertebrates and woodland amphibians, which are rare or threatened in the state. Over 21 species of rare or endangered plants have also been located and documented throughout the forest. Research into the rate of carbon sequestration and amelioration of airborne ozone is currently continuing under an arrangement with Dr. Xuhui Lee of Yale University.
As a National Weather Service Cooperative Weather Observer Station, daily weather readings have been recorded since 1932. The climate here is favorable for tree growth with an average annual rainfall of 52 inches, well distributed throughout the year. The average annual snowfall of 96 inches usually produces a snow cover, which remains well into April, and thus helps to reduce the spring fire hazard. The warmest month of the year is July with an average mean temperature of 67.8° F, while the coldest month is January with an average mean temperature of 20.3° F. The annual average mean temperature is 44.4° F.
Through the foresight of Edward C. Childs, the land comprising the Great Mountain Forest, with its long tradition of forest and wildlife management is recognized for its implementation of sustainable forest management practices along with the protection of unique natural areas. The ethical land use philosophy will continue to be carried out into the future to assure that forest stewardship will be implemented. Recreation, the establishment of both research and demonstration forest projects, the application of practices that will best protect the watersheds, the atmosphere and maintain an abundant and healthy wildlife population, are all integral parts of a multiple use program.
Long-term protection for the forest was completed in 2003 with the sale of the development rights to the Forest Legacy Program using federal and state funds. With the 5,383 acres under easement to the Legacy Program and an additional 658 acres previously owned by the Great Mountain Forest Corporation, the entire Great Mountain Forest is now permanently protected under the auspices of the Great Mountain Forest Corporation, which is owned and managed by a tax exempt private operating foundation.