A Forest of Dreams
Mountains seem immortal. Shrouded in trees, inhabited by wildlife, they seem as unchanging as the sea. But that is an illusion.
Consider Canaan Mountain and its remarkable transformations over the course of only three centuries. Once blanketed by the great Greenwoods forest, it was denuded in the 18th and 19th centuries and turned into a moonscape of rock, bogs and struggling shrubbery.
Then, a century-and-a-quarter ago, Pittsburgh businessman Starling W. Childs partnered with banker and cotton manufacturer Frederic C. Walcott to purchase thousands of acres of barren land primarily owned by the Barnum-Richardson and Hunts Lyman companies. It had been ravaged by two centuries of iron production and the concomitant clear cutting of the forest to make charcoal to fuel the blast furnaces.
“My grandfather bought old Mr. Burr’s farm on Windrow Road in 1909 to use as a summer residence,” said Starling W. Childs II. “When they would come up on the train, my father (Edward C. “Ted” Childs) said they could see flames shooting 200 feet into the air out of the old blast furnace.”
But with the imminent collapse of the iron industry in the early 20th century—the last blast furnace winked out in 1923—the companies were eager to divest themselves of the lands and offered to sell them to Childs and Walcott, Yale College chums, for pennies on the dollar.
“My grandfather’s first purchase was about 400 acres, including the shoreline of Tobey Pond,” Childs continued. “He and his friend, Frederic Walcott, who liked to hunt, were members of the Boone and Crockett Club, a hunter-conservationist group established by Teddy Roosevelt. Roosevelt was also a big-game hunter. There were no bag limits then and animals were being hunted to extinction. The idea of the Progressive Era, of which Roosevelt was a leader, was that if there was going to be game for the future, someone had to do something about protecting natural resources.”
So the men set out to restore animals to the mountain. Walcott—later president of the Connecticut Board of Fisheries and Game—was particularly interested in reintroducing bird and deer populations. “There wasn’t a deer in Connecticut,” observed the modern-day Starling Childs, a trustee of Great Mountain Forest (GMF), the conservation legacy organization that grew out of his grandfather’s and Walcott’s efforts.
The men built a pen encircling about 40 or 50 acres along the shore of Tobey Pond to hold a breeding population of deer imported from New York State and reintroduced species of birds that had been eliminated from the Connecticut landscape—pheasants, ruffed grouse, canvas back ducks and more.
“They had two gamekeepers, one for the deer and the other for the birds,” reported Childs. “They brought sand hill crane eggs here from the West under silkie game hens. Still today, you can find nesting sand hill cranes—they must be the fiftieth generation. But then, during World War I, it began to look frivolous to be spending money that way. So they opened the gates and let them out.”
At the same time, the partners had been adding to their land and starting to restore the forest, planting various shrubs and conifers on the hillsides. Among their experiments was cutting one of the few remaining sections of old-growth forest and then watching and measuring it to see how quickly regrowth occurred. It was, and is, one of the earliest studies of forest regeneration.
“It is a ‘Forest of Dreams,’” Childs said. “If you build it, people will come to learn.” And indeed, they have. Since the days of Childs and Walcott, the mountainside has been a vast outdoor laboratory.
Over the years many tree plantations have been initiated and scholarly research done. And herein lies an irony. The deer population, once fenced in and so carefully nourished, is now well-established and is fenced outof the experimental portions of GMF.
As the forest grew, so did the Walcott and Childs families. Amongst the Childs clan was the next great champion of Great Mountain Forest: Ted Childs.
Ted Childs continued the family’s Yale tradition, studying forestry and succeeding his father at GMF in 1932. He and Walcott continued to add tracts of land until Walcott’s death in 1948, when Childs bought out Walcott’s share and purchased additional parcels, increasing GMF’s size to more than 6,000 acres.
Under Childs, the conservation philosophy shifted to managing the forest as a wholistic entity. Plantations of different trees were installed in denuded areas, Christmas tree production was undertaken, chestnut experimentation was conducted and the viability of conifers collected from around the world was tested.
Another focus was education. In 1932 GMF also became a volunteer National Weather Service Cooperative Weather Observation Station, work that continues to this day. Ted Childs also began an intern program, bringing young forestry students to work with the GMF forestry crew thus affording young forestry professionals from around the country the opportunity to apply their classroom learning.
When a 1938 hurricane destroyed Yale University’s research forest in eastern Connecticut, Childs gifted seven acres in GMF and constructed the Yale Forestry Camp. Through internship programs and a long relationship with the Yale School of Forestry, hundreds of students have learned the basics of silviculture there, researching forest ecology, the interaction of soil, water, climate and forest growth. In 1962 Ted Childs established the Great Mountain Forest Corporation to fund continued research in the forest.
The family’s relationship with the mountain passed to a third generation. Starling Childs II said “conservation was woven into my ethos by my father.” Like his father he attended Yale where he earned a BS in geology and a Master’s in Forest Science. His brother, Ned, and their future brother-in-law, Chip Collins, also completed forestry studies at Yale, strengthening the school’s ties with GMF.
Over a long career Star Childs has been a forestry consultant with his own firm EECOS (Ecology and Environmental Consulting Services) and teaches an advanced-level course in environmental science at Salisbury School. He serves on the boards of the Connecticut Forest and Parks Association, Berkshire-Litchfield Environmental Council and Northern Woodlands Magazine.
Childs has always sought to strike a balance between sustainable management of natural resources and preserving natural resources. GMF has always been operated as a “working forest,” with systematic harvests of trees to help pay personnel and to fund operational costs.
He has been willing to look at sources of revenue such as wind turbine generation of power—although the idea was nixed by his siblings and the Board of Trustees. He noted whimsically that his grandfather purchased the land with his General Electric inheritance and that it would have been a “good statement” if the land had, in turn, been used for power generation.
More recently, and more successfully, he argued that sequestration of carbon is a valuable source of income. Here also, there is irony. His father always objected to cutting large, mature trees and now the very trees he sought to save are generating income by storing carbon.
But perhaps most importantly, Star Childs, his late mother Elisabeth and his siblings guided Great Mountain Forest toward permanent conservation following his father’s death in 1996. The land passed to Elisabeth Childs unencumbered but the family realized that death taxes would force the sale of substantial portions of the property on her passing.
“There were difficult decisions to be made,” said Star Childs. But fortunately, at about the same time President George H. W. Bush signed the Forest Legacy Program of the U.S. Forest Service into being. The family decided that the conservation program, which would protect the land from development in perpetuity, would be the best path to follow.
Childs said the process included a “fairly complex series of applications and an appraisal” and some “horse trading” over an exchange of parcels with the State of Connecticut to allow access to previously landlocked sections of the Housatonic State Forest. “But we got the deal done,” he said, and an independent non-profit entity was born.
Following the conservation easement, more employees were added, with operations now overseen by a Board of Trustees. Public access has been increased through programming and access to trails.
“There is a perception that it is a private forest,” said Childs, “but even though research continues, it is open the public. We are having signs created to make it more welcoming.”