History of Great Mountain Forest

Great Mountain Forest, photo by Tom Blagden 2020

The Forest Story

Great Mountain Forest (GMF) is one of the nation’s oldest conservation legacy organizations and the largest conservation easement in New England. Located in Connecticut’s Northern Litchfield County is GMF’s more than 6,000 acres of woodland that straddles the towns of Falls Village and Norfolk.

Only two hours from New York City in the southern Berkshires, Great Mountain Forest is also part of an ecologically vital corridor—a bridge for wildlife and migratory songbirds in the northeast. It is also a critical part of the watersheds, providing fresh water to metropolitan areas to the south.

Today, Great Mountain Forest Corporation is managed as a non-profit organization focused on forest stewardship and providing the public with an introduction to the Forest, its ecology, and forest management techniques. GMF also increases understanding of cultural connections with the Forest, illustrating how the community is part of this historic landscape.

The 1800s

Hunts Lyman and Barnum Richardson Iron Companies owned a considerable portion of what is now Great Mountain Forest. Colliers worked throughout the Forest, sending the charcoal they produced to local blast furnaces to smelt iron ore. Vast tracts of the Forest were repeatedly and intensively cut over in this process, with little thought to the future. Hemlock stands in the Forest were felled to provide tanbark for the local tanneries.

Charcoal produced to supply local blast furnaces

In addition to this, most hemlock stands in the forest were felled to provide tanbark for the local tanneries, so that by the early twentieth century, the original composition of the forest was greatly altered. It was dominated by shade-intolerant saplings of pin cherry, aspen, and gray birch, and much of the land was reduced to burned-over scrub. The disappearance of the American chestnut, in the early twentieth century, only made these changes more dramatic. A century of industrial use left little of either economic or ecological value, and the land was sold or abandoned for taxes by the iron companies.

The early 1900s

These industrial pursuits significantly altered the original composition of the Forest. Dominating the landscape were shade-intolerant saplings of pin cherry, aspen, and grey birch and areas reduced to burned-over scrub. The American chestnut also disappeared, making these changes more dramatic.

A century of misuse and lack of stewardship of nature’s gifts depleted the area of its economic and ecological value, and the iron companies sold the land or abandoned it for taxes.

1909

Frederic C Walcott and Starling W. Childs

Frederic C. Walcott and Starling W. Childs began a partnership and acquired 400 acres of barren land around Tobey Pond and established the reserve that would later grow into Great Mountain Forest.

The early 1900s were the height of Progressive-era conservationism. Walcott and Childs dedicated themselves to this its goals and privately funded their vision for public good and land and wildlife restoration. GMF was to be their laboratory for conservation and active forest and wildlife management.

1912

Walcott exhorts New York and Connecticut to purchase lands for public benefit, reintroduce wildlife, and practice intelligent forestry. For this type of forward-thinking conservation, GMF was to be an example.

1913-1915

Walcott and Childs advocate for public ownership of state lands to reclaim these areas and reintroduce wildlife. Their work spurred the purchase of 15,000 acres in Connecticut and led to similar efforts in Massachusetts. The whole history of Forest and park development in Connecticut involves the combination of progressive government action and the support of private citizens, like Walcott and Childs.

1930- 1948

Walcott and Childs secure several thousand acres under management. During this time, they experimented with what might adapt to the Connecticut waste woodlands under their control. They planted native shrubs, hemlock, and pine, reintroduced deer from northern New England, and experimented with waterfowl and upland game birds. The partners imported young canvasbacks, redheads, pintails, and wood duck from Canada, which they bred in captivity in Norfolk to increase their numbers.

1932

Upon graduating from Yale Forest School in 1932, Starling Childs’s son, Edward C. “Ted” Childs, took over his father’s half interest in the property. Over the years following, Ted Childs and Walcott continued to add tracts of land, including farms. During this time, the focus of conservation at GMF shift to managing the Forest as a holistic entity.

1938

In 1938, a hurricane swept through New England and leveled Yale University’s research forest in eastern Connecticut. As a gesture of support for his alma mater, Ted Childs gifted seven acres in the heart of GMF and constructed the Yale Forestry Camp.

Yale Forestry Camp

1941-1960s

The Yale School of Forestry began using the newly-build Yale Forestry Camp, and the relationship between Yale and GMF continues to this day. Up to the 1960s, Yale extensively used the Camp for field training of forestry students. Today, the Camp is available for summer programs and outside groups.

1948

In 1948 Frederic Walcott died, and Ted Childs purchased Walcott’s interest, along with additional land. This increased GMF to its present size.

In this same year, Ted Childs began an intern program, bringing young forestry students from around the country to work with the GMF forestry crew. This internship afforded budding forestry professionals from around the country the opportunity to apply their classroom learning in an actual forest. Research and education were central to Ted Child’s vision of GMF, a focus that continues today.

GMF Interns

GMF Interns

1950-1992

In 1950, Ted Childs hired Forest Manager Darrell Russ and worked with him to implement a management program that would increase forest health while benefiting the local economy and community.

Darrell Russ and Ted Childs

1996

With the death of Ted Childs in 1996, his wife Elisabeth inherited the Forest.

Ted and Elisabeth Childs

2003

Elisabeth Childs and her family place the Forest under protection with the sale of the development rights to the Forest Legacy Program of the U.S. Forest Service. The Childs family then placed the Forest under the control of a non-profit corporation responsible for its management. Because of their foresight and planning, Great Mountain Forest Corporation is permanently protected under the easement and functions as a 501c3 private operating foundation.

Great Mountain Forest exists today because of the foresight of Frederic Walcott C. Walcott and Starling W. Childs that began in 1909. In the ensuing decades, Ted Childs supported conservation, education intelligent forest planning. Elisabeth Childs and her family protected this long legacy by ensuring the Forest would remain intact for future use and education.

With its long tradition of forest and wildlife management, GMF is recognized for its sustainable forest management, the protection of unique natural areas, and its support of research and education. These pursuits are the foundation for the growth and expansion of Great Mountain Forest’s mission.