Foresting from the Ground Up: Connecticut landowners find their niche in forestry

I step out into the cold, clear air on a late October day, parked in front of a house painted the color of the woods. Within a few minutes, I hear a friendly shout. I turn to see two warm faces — Guy Estell and his wife, owners of the 90 acres of land that we are standing on in northeastern Connecticut. They show me around a small part of their property. It is mostly wooded, and I cannot help but notice how the two seem perfectly at home.

Guy inherited this property from his parents. Ever since he was born down the street, the woods have been an integral part of his life. Formal forest management has never been a top priority for him, but Guy sees great value in the beauty and wildlife habitats of his woodland.

Mary Tyrrell, the director of the Global Institute of Sustainable Forestry, sees people like Guy as the most important factor in catalyzing change in service of the forests. Guy and many others like him in Connecticut and elsewhere, have a strong stewardship ethic, even without an active goal related to land management. Environmental scientists must work with woodland owners in confronting forest preservation, and policies will only be effective if they understand the motivations of people like Guy, whose actions will have the biggest impact on the health of Connecticut forests.

The preservationist’s view

About 60 percent of Connecticut’s land is covered by forest, according to 2006 data from the state’s Center for Land Use Education and Research. Acreage of core forest has been partly diminished by ongoing development, leaving a more fragmented forest across the state. Fragmentation means smaller separated blocks of forest, which threatens wildlife habitats and water resource quality.

Preserving the essential ecological features of the forest is possible, but challenging, especially since many Connecticut woodlands are privately owned. Forests extend through private pieces of land, where individual landowners have jurisdiction. The land depends on landowners, and each landowner’s decisions conversely affect the forest as a whole.

In a recent report, Tyrrell found that 34 percent of Connecticut forest is spread out among private family-owned properties larger than 10 acres, most of which are upstate. More than four-fifths of these larger wooded properties are primary residences. About a quarter have been passed down at least one generation. The typical Connecticut woodland owner is older than 50 and has retired with a spouse. Typically, both are highly educated. Tyrrell’s report emphasizes the core values of these landowners — scenery, privacy, and some concern for woodland conservation. But in addressing this last goal, few go looking for help or even know where to start. Only a small subset of woodland owners is aware of the programs and organizations ready to aid in forest preservation.

Part of the problem is a lack of sufficient resources. The Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (CT DEEP) provides free professional and technical forestry planning services, as does Yale University. Tyrrell sees a future in partnerships between the government and other organizations like Yale and the grassroots Audubon Connecticut. She points out that landowners sometimes take issue with direct government involvement within the bounds of their private property. “Once the government finds something like a vernal pool on your land,” Tyrell said, “they’ll tell you what you can and can’t do.”

As a private institution, Yale does not have to maintain the same rigid policies. Julius Pasay is the manager for the Yale-Myers Forest, an 8,000-acre expanse woodland. Part of Pasay’s job is coordinating the Quiet Corner Initiative (QCI), a 10 year-old program that employs a variety of means to get locals engaged in forestry. Named after the conspicuous lack of urban disturbance and development in northeastern Connecticut, QCI encompasses both Guy’s woodland and the Yale-Myers Forest. “Most people [here] are interested in their forests for either preservation or conservation,” Pasay said. According to Pasay, the number of people participating in the QCI has risen from 30 to about 80 since its founding. Most of these people, like Guy, own land nearby.

At the Yale Forest, Pasay tries to connect these people with each other. Through the QCI, he organizes workshops and speaker events that vary in topic from shiitake mushroom inoculation to animal-powered logging. “People get together several times a year for these events in the Forest, and they see familiar faces,” Pasay said. “We’re really trying to create a community of conservation.”

But what does it mean to conserve a forest, to keep a forest healthy? One mentality — perhaps the obvious one — is to let nature take its course. But sometimes well-calculated human intervention can help us manage our forests. A small amount of logging, for example, is necessary for long-term conservation. As old trees are cut down, new ones grow, and the trees becomes diverse in age. The importance of age diversity was clear after the 1850s, when the forest began to recover large swaths of abandoned agricultural land across Connecticut. As a result, the state’s entire forest with its many same-aged trees was uniformly susceptible to a massive hurricane in 1938. Most of Connecticut’s woodlands were knocked down that year. The memory of the hurricane’s destruction is a reminder that we can engage in preemptive and protective initiatives.

It is concepts like this that the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies (F&ES) wants to bring to the community. The F&ES course titled “Management Plans for Protected Areas” requires students to get involved in real-world forest management. Landowners like Guy know the property and the forest, though different landowners focus on different issues — from fighting invasive species, to bird-watching, to general environmentalism. Students in forest management work with these landowners free of charge, brainstorming how to best approach their forest related goals.

The woodlander’s perspective

Guy can see the tree line of the Yale-Myers Forest from his yard. He has been going to workshops and seminars hosted by the QCI ever since it began. Guy never received formal forestry training, yet he is familiar with these woods, having grown up on this property. For a while he maintained the forest by thinning the trees and selling firewood, though ever since selling his saw mill 30 years ago, he has not been able to put as much time into the land. So when Pasay reached out this past year about sending some students to help Guy manage his forest, he was happy to entertain the idea. “They need to study the land, and I’ve got land for them,” he said. “It works for both of us.”

We find the two forestry students, Bob Kuchta and Nicole Wooten, counting and measuring tree species just a quarter mile north of us. Bob is an older Connecticut local with a master’s degree in environmental education. Nicole is a second-year F&ES student who is working towards a master’s in environmental management. Both of them are here for the F&ES management plans class. The two are energetic, knowledgeable, friendly.

Bob is the local inland wetlands officer and tree warden in Madison, CT. This semester, he is auditing the management plans class at Yale to learn more about forest dynamics. In Connecticut forests, there are a fair number of wetlands, including where rivers trace through the woods. “If you protect the wetlands, you protect the water quality,” Bob reminds us as he tallies some more trees. Taking a break from measuring, he picks up a leaf from the ground. “It’s a Red Maple,” he shows us, and adds a tally for the species on his chart. “It’s got three main lobes, a red stem, and red seeds too.” The Red Maple tree is bare, but Bob can tell by the bark alone if need be — he has been doing this for 40 years.

In Bob’s town, he represents the local government. About 60 percent of Connecticut landowners prefer to receive information from the local government. There is something different about the people at this local level — they seem to care. Bob is deeply invested in the wetlands and forests of Connecticut. For him, being on Guy’s property is not about the class; his goal is to learn as much as possible about how to approach environmental management in his home state.

At some point, Bob points to a tree with scaly bark. “Do you see this? It’s like burnt potato chips. This is the bark of a black cherry. Veneer wood, Guy!” He turns towards Guy with a grin. “You’ll be able to really retire!”

Guy chuckles in return. “But I’ve got to have something to do.”

Guy is not the type to sit still. For decades he has been cutting down trees here and there and selling firewood. In the early 1970s, he built a new house, exterior and interior both, all using wood from his property. After Guy retired as a University of Connecticut supervisor, he started working with a local forest products company. “I ain’t quitting work, not just yet. That’s when you get old quick,” he said, and laughed.

Guy and his wife live off the land. During the summers they plant a sizeable vegetable garden and Guy does occasional hunting on the property. The two of them are happy with what they have. Forest management for Guy and for many landowners is about a form of practical environmentalism. His purpose is not to save the world, one preserved forest at a time, but to keep forests beautiful, and to protect resources on the local scale. To policymakers, it is important to save forests as a whole. But they must realize that landowners are not focused on the big, global picture. For Guy, the woodlands are about the individual and the family — a lifestyle that revolves around simple self-sustainability.

Extra Reading:

Andren, Henrik. 1994. Effects of habitat fragmentation on birds and mammals in landscapes with different proportions of suitable habitat: a review. Oikos, 355-366.

Hawes, Austin F. 2014. History of Forestry in Connecticut. Written 1952-1957.

Tyrrell, Mary L. 2015. Understanding Connecticut Woodland Owners: A Report on the Attitudes, Values, and Challenges of Connecticut’s Family Woodland Owners. Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies.

Wenger, Karl. F. 1984. Forestry handbook (Vol. 84, No. 1). John Wiley & Sons.

Wharton, Eric H., Widmann, Richard H., Alerich, Carol L., Barnett, Charles H., Lister, Andrew J., Lister, Tonya W., Smith, Don, & Borman, Fred. 2004. The forests of Connecticut.

About the Author:

Rain Tsong is a senior at Yale studying geology and geophysics with a deep interest in the environment. He is interested in how Yale engages with the community and volunteers through Demos. After he graduates, he hopes to pursue geochemistry through teaching and research.


The author would like to thank Guy and Andrea Estell for their warm welcome and support. He would also like to thank Mary Tyrrell, Julius Pasay, and everyone else at Yale F&ES for helping to shape this article’s direction.