Seeing the forest for the trees

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When asked what she values most about her 72-acre parcel of land in northern Connecticut, Daryl Basch gives a moment’s pause before answering. She appreciates the historical narrative of her land’s agricultural past, but she also appreciates how secluded she feels from civilization. She appreciates the wildlife thriving in her woods, but she also appreciates the time she spends hunting with her husband. The aesthetic beauty of the hemlock groves outside her front door are precious to her too. Nonetheless, she’d like to sell the rights to their timber. With the help of the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies, Basch and her husband hope to manage their interests without undermining the ecological value of their land.

Angela Orthmeyer

“Three months ago, we were nothing but good neighbors to the Yale Myers Forest,” said Basch. “After attending a seminar about the deer and moose populations in the area, we fell in love with the forestry people and invited them to conduct an ecological survey of our property.”

The Baschs’ willingness to engage their land in a dialogue is part of a larger initiative to re-establish a land ethic. At the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies, researchers are developing and implementing management practices on forestland throughout the Northeast with the hope of reaffirming a harmony between the interests of humans and the greater ecological community. On the cutting edge of land conservation, the nature/culture dichotomy is thinning.

Or, as Aldo Leopold FES 1909 said in his influential work, “A Sand County Almanac,” “We shall hardly relinquish the shovel. After all, it has many good points, but we are in need of gentler and more objective criteria for its successful use.”


Steam rose from the swirling surface of Bigelow Brook, for the air is colder and crisper in Union, Conn.; the subtle signs of fall became more apparent as we traveled further north. But it was still mid-September and there were trout to be had, so on this early Sunday morning, my fishing buddy and I briskly made our way through the woods. The sun had just barely risen, and the light that did manage to filter through the bows of the red pines and the hemlocks bathed everything in a pale blue glow. Much of the forest floor was still damp from rain. As we trudged through the underbrush, small frogs jumped from beneath our soles as we tried to avoid crushing an array of mushrooms popping up through the leaves. There were deep-yellow, dome-like satellites with brown spots, clusters of pearl white monoliths reaching for the canopy and deep purple stems with flowery appendages that arched downward toward the soil like antique lamp posts. There was another decorative floor oddity around every fern.

Downstream, we found our first pool. It was just below the meeting of two brooks: one without a name; the other, Bigelow Brook. The current against the bank was swift, but it was deep, and a fallen log protruded into the water to offer trout some respite from nature’s liquid treadmill. With a forward flick of our wrists, we watched our lines gently unroll onto the water’s surface. It was a good place to begin.


As early as 1913, Yale University began acquiring forest lands through a number of generous alumni donations. Today, the school owns 10,880 acres of forestland across Connecticut, New Hampshire and Vermont, the biggest of which — the Yale Myers Forest in northern Connecticut — is also the largest privately owned parcel of land in Connecticut with 7,840 acres. In many ways, Yale’s early forays into environmentalism reflected the pulse of a nation becoming more aware of its natural environment. As the modern conservation movement took its first breaths in the dawn of the 20th century, Yale established itself at the vanguard of the movement with the founding of the School of Forestry in 1901. The federal government quickly followed suit when the United States Forestry Service was founded just four years later by Gifford Pinchot 1889. For the next hundred years, the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies would continue to shape forest management policy across the continent.

As Yale Forests Director Mark Ashton told the Connecticut Woodlands magazine in 2003: “Historically, research here has changed how forests were managed in America.”

One of the school’s earliest graduates became the largest contributor to the Yale forest holdings. George H. Myers, who graduated from the School of Forestry in 1902, held lumber interests in Washington State and often bought land in Connecticut for recreational purposes.

At the time, land in the Northeast was cheap. When railways made long distance distribution a reality, Eastern markets once beholden to small Connecticut farmers were flooded with cheap agricultural products from the Western plain states and an emerging industrial economy took the place of the Eastern agricultural communities. As a result, Myers was buying up abandoned farmland at a cost of next to nothing — likely less than $4 per acre. Exposed to over 200 years of misguided agricultural practices, the land he purchased between 1913 and 1930 (and bequeathed to Yale shortly thereafter) was generally deforested and lacking in biological diversity.

In Yale’s first 30 years of ownership, high property taxes and a dearth of timber fit for market made the University’s forest holdings a serious financial concern — the white elephant of the endowment conversation.

But an intensive forest management program initiated in the 1960s has since made Yale’s forests economically self-sustaining. Today, management practices continue to evolve toward a mutual harmony of ecological and economic considerations.


I worked the water starting on the inside edge of the current, methodically, incrementally, and passed my fly over every inch of the surface. The air in the forest was dense: you could feel it as you breathed, you could taste its moisture on your tongue.

It took no more than a few casts to hook a small fish: not a trout, but a small river Dace. I quickly reeled in the fish, witnessed the flash of its silver scales and gently released it back into the current whirling around my knees. We kept fishing.


Angela Orthmeyer

Only the untrained eye would consider the Yale Myers forest wilderness. Since the last sheets of glacial ice receded north at the end of the Wisconsinan Ice Age, humans have had an active role in shaping the ecology of the land. Early nomadic Paleoindians formed hunter-gatherer communities among the herds of mammoths and caribou in the tundra’s lowlands. Over the next 12,000 years, this tundra gave way to forestland, and the hunter-gatherer communities continued to flourish. These hunter-gatherers managed their land, taking what they needed while also maintaining an awareness of forest populations — the first ecological engineers. But a human-induced ecological revolution did not really occur until the arrival of Europeans. The European land ethic was radically different from that of the aboriginal communities, as Europeans tended to believe land could only be improved through cultivation.

Since inheriting the land deeply scarred by these early farmers, the School of Forestry & Environmental Studies has sought to use the “working forest” criterion: a principle of economic self-sufficiency that promotes all operations so long as they adhere to normal business and legal constraints for private non-industrial forest owners seeking multiple benefits from their lands. In short, the Yale forests seek to be a model for private land ownership independent of a university; they are economically sustainable even outside the considerable subsidies that the University receives. This way, the management practices can serve as a model for other landowners.

To meet this objective, Yale Forests aim to create a variety of forest conditions across a wide spectrum of topographic and soil conditions. The school’s silvicultural treatments (fancy talk for “how they treat their trees”) seek to maintain a complex mixture of New England hardwood species in order to satisfy specific conditions for product markets and site-specific ecology. Collectively, this maintenance of varied micro-ecosystems is a management strategy referred to as the “shifting mosaics of habitat type.” Ensuring that the forest contains all possible habitat types (i.e. wet lowlands vs. dry highlands, sunny meadows vs. shaded forest floors) increases the likelihood that the land will support rare regional species. Diverse habitats translate into more biodiversity.

In addition to maintaining the “working forest” management model, the School also puts a large emphasis on education and research. Many other research forests don’t include management as part of their educational initiative, but since Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies students (under the watchful eyes of their professors) conduct the majority of the tasks necessary to maintain the forests, education and maintenance have become intertwined. During the summer months, student management crews live and breathe together in the Yale Myers Forest, sleeping in tents or rustic cabins. Just an hour away from New Haven, these students briefly dip out of the network and experience a certain level of remoteness that many find invaluable.

Angela Orthmeyer

“I don’t think that I would have been as happy in Connecticut as long as I’ve been here without the forests as a reprieve from life in New Haven,” said Alex Finkral FES ’97 in a 2003 Connecticut Woodlands article.

Without compromising the overall integrity and health of the forest ecosystem dynamic, the Yale Myers Forest also seeks to provide sites for scientific research that could last for several decades.

Professor David Skelly has been monitoring amphibian populations in Yale Myers Forest since the early 1990s. He wants to understand how different elements of a constantly changing physical environment impact populations over the long and short term. For Skelly, uncovering context is the important task; the ecology of a forest could be affected by events in the distant or recent past, by what’s in close proximity or by what’s far away.

In his recent studies, Skelly has been monitoring the effect of a varied canopy on amphibian populations. When trees grow up and over ponds and cast shadows over the water, certain amphibian populations retreat while others thrive. Similarly, when Skelly and his team cut forest growth out from around ponds to expose them to sunlight, they see a similar ebb and flow in populations.

“There’s a constant dialogue between our experimental work and our observations,” Skelly said.

One amphibian of particular interest to Skelly is the Wood Frog; this frog stands apart from other amphibious species of the area for its ability to thrive in both sunny and shady environments. Although the explanation for its adaptability is still unclear, one hypothesis proposed by Skelly is rapid small scale evolution.

“When trying to understand how this one species can do what others cannot, we’ve noticed that local populations have slightly evolved from one to the next” Skelly said. “The frogs who thrive in ponds exposed to sun have a slightly different combination of traits than the frogs who thrive in the shade.”

The adaptability of the Wood Frog has implications for global climate change. In an increasingly warm world, species have just two options: cope with warming environments or move north. Since the average temperature difference between the sun and the shade in the Yale Myers Forest is approximately the same as the predicted temperature change over the next 100 years, rapid small-scale evolution has emerged as a feasible alternative.

“Ideally, we strive for focused research with large scale implications,” said professor Oswald Schmitz, a professor of population and community ecology.

Professor Schmitz has been conducting research on arthropod food webs in the meadows present in the forest. His work has implications for the classic paradigm of ecosystem structure as well as for the worldwide conservation of predatory species.

“In my work, we’ve found that it’s not diversity alone that contributes to ecosystem stability, but that there are specific traits of a species that contribute to the ecosystem as a whole, from the top down,” said Schmitz.

In his work, Schmitz has been able to ascertain how the different hunting methods of meadow-dwelling spiders have widespread implications on the plant life of the meadows. By nature of their predation, more actively predatory spiders affect the behavior of grasshoppers differently than sit-and-wait ambush spiders do because these different hunting techniques cause the grasshoppers in the meadow to inhabit and feed on different plant species. The predator at the top of the food chain profoundly impacts the base structure of the ecosystem.


We continued to stalk the brook, but there wasn’t a trout to be seen. As we meandered through the forest, the current gradually slowed and the hilly terrain rising about the brook flattened as the forest gave way to meadow. The expansive opening before us was a relief, a breath of fresh air; dense forests (and mosquitoes) can be suffocating. But the lowland meadow extending before us was in fact a bog, and rather than trudge through the mud, we navigated its outer edge, where we found a raised road. We followed the road to a bridge at the meadow’s center.

The trees rising at the meadow’s outer edge presided over the land, looking inward as if debating what to do with this empty space. But the space was not empty. There were birds singing in the reeds, bugs blowing in the breeze. There were the remnants of a dam, and when my companion scared a beaver out from a watery thicket on the river bank, there were its inhabitants, too. We split up: He fished the meadow in the shadow of the bridge while I followed the road back into the forest on the other side.


If 20th-century conservation was characterized by understanding our industrial and agricultural impact on the land, at the School of Forestry & Environmental Studies, the 21st century will be characterized by understanding ways to actively manage the land we’ve inherited. Because many of today’s forests are second growth (i.e. land that has once been cleared and since regrown), forestry going forward must focus on managing these emerging lands as investments (both ecological and economical) through research, education and leadership. The “working forest” land ethic that the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies has helped spawn is a sign that the nature culture dichotomy is converging.

“We try and incorporate the specifics of the land site with the landowners’ interests and values to create a dialogue between the school and community,” said Nathan Rutenbeck FES ’12. “Establishing this structure is part of the job, and it facilitates collaboration.”

During this past summer, graduate students in the environment school were assigned the task of determining the true value of the Yale Myers Forest. In this comprehensive evaluation, the students were forced to consider the economic, aesthetic, recreational and even spiritual elements of the forest. Although this value may be impossible to quantify, it’s most easily comprehended through an understanding of various personal relationships the local residents maintain with their land.

The team started out by speaking with local citizens at town centers across the county, asking them what they valued most about their forests. With this information, they then began to approach private land owners directly adjacent to the Yale Myers Forest to better understand their values and the way they perceive their land. Some appreciate the wildlife that calls their property home; others want to sell timber. Still others just like the view from their porch.

“We like looking out our window and not seeing any evidence of a human soul for thirty miles,” Daryl Basch said.

The Baschs own a 72-acre parcel that used to belong to the old Chism family farm. An farmhouse dating back to the 1700s sits in graceful decay on their property. In addition to appreciating the aesthetic value of their land, they’ve also decided to team up with the School of Forestry & Environmental Studies to create a management plan that will allow them to sell timber, grow hay in existing fields, and perhaps someday even raise cattle. Most importantly, the Baschs want to sell the development rights of their land to the Connecticut Farmland Trust or the Connecticut Forestry Legacy Program. This will ensure that their land will never be developed. The Baschs’ partnership with the School of Forestry & Environmental Studies will allow them to present thorough ecological data to these conservation organizations, legitimizing them as a potential candidate.

The School of Forestry & Environmental Studies’ woodland partnership with the Baschs is part of a larger program called the Quiet Corner Initiative to generate dialogue between the school and local denizens. Its purpose is to work with local landowners to come to a mutual and comprehensive understanding of the value of their land and the endgame: to create a cohesive patchwork of “working forest” management practice that would extend beyond the borders of the Yale Myers Forest. Through the building of personal relationships between the School of Forestry & Environmental Studies and the private land owners, the school has come to better understand how local residents value their land; through educational seminars and ecological surveys, the private land owners are acquiring an increasingly in-depth knowledge of forest ecology.


I followed the road back into the forest until I came to another bridge. This bridge was older than the first one I had encountered in the meadow. It was built of old stone blocks, and instead of letting water freely pass beneath it, the brook was funneled through two large pipes that guided the water down a stone slough on the the opposite side. There were vines growing out from behind the cracks in its foundation, and as I scaled down its side toward the river bank, a large black snake found sanctuary in its structure. This bridge was old, older perhaps than all the life surrounding it.

A ways beneath the stone slough was a slow pool. If it wasn’t for a few bubbles drifting downstream on its surface I might not have noticed a current at all. I caught and released two Pickerel near a grassy bank on the far edge. A place for Pickerel is no place for a trout. Perhaps the trout had left.

Chase Niesner

“We don’t have wilderness in Connecticut,” professor Skelly said. “But forests are returning to something close.”

As I wrote down his words, I mistakenly finished his sentence for him: “close to what was.” But he quickly corrected me.

“The forests will never return to what ‘was,’ because the forests are continually changing,” Skelly reiterated. “The players on the field are constantly shifting.”

He explained that the populations of chestnut trees that returned after the last ice age were killed soon thereafter by a deadly pathogen. He explained how we were losing Hemlocks as we spoke and how the Emerald Ash Borer will soon take out all the ash trees. But he didn’t seem too upset by the notion.

He explained how new species are entering the region through a massive horticulture trade and that the wildlife once hunted to near extinction are slowly returning, learning to thrive in their new reality. For Skelly and his colleagues, collaboration with nature means acknowledging that forces between nature and culture flow in two directions and that a division between the two might be detrimental to all involved.

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