Located in the heart of the Elm City, Yale’s campus is home to many trees: they line Hillhouse Avenue, shade Old Campus and adorn residential college courtyards. But driving one hour and 20 minutes northeast will bring you to one of the University’s expansive, lesser-known collections of trees: the Yale School Forests.
Located at multiple New England sites, the Yale Forests span nearly 11,000 acres in total — over 31 times more land area than Yale’s campus in New Haven. Six forests of varying sizes comprise the University’s holdings — one in Connecticut, three in Vermont and two in New Hampshire. Yale Myers Forest, situated in the rural northeastern Connecticut towns of Ashford, Eastford, Union and Woodstock, is the largest of these parcels. It covers 7,840 acres and is the busiest of the University’s six wooded holdings in terms of education, research and lumber harvesting operations, according to the Yale School Forests website.
The Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies began acquiring New England forestland largely from alumni donations in the early 20th century, beginning with the 1921 acquisition of Yale Toumey Forest in southwestern New Hampshire. For many years, the forests were either neglected or treated as a burden waiting to be offloaded. But in the 1950s, this mentality shifted as the forest manager at the time sought to implement forest management practices to begin turning a profit, according to the School Forests website.
When I started working on this article, I began to mention the Yale forests in conversation whenever I got the chance. This resulted in an interesting mix of responses, ranging from surprise blended with curiosity and confusion (“Wait, how many acres?”), to unphased shrugs (“Well, it is Yale”) to genuine excitement over a familiar piece of information (“Yes, I went to one of them with my seminar! It’s so cool!”). On the whole, the school’s ownership of forestland was not common knowledge amongst my peers.
According to Yale Forests Research Coordinator Laura Green FES ’18, many universities — especially those with forestry schools — have associated forests for research purposes. Yale maintains its forests with three “interwoven goals” in mind, Green said. These goals include management (shaping the landscape to responsibly fulfill economic goals and preserve wildlife), education (conducting outreach to inform the surrounding community and making the space available to students for hands-on learning) and research. She noted that research in the forests reaches back into the early 20th century and spans disciplines, with an “ongoing tradition of research outside of hard sciences and ecology,” such as archaeological research in one of the school’s New Hampshire holdings.
Though Yale’s ownership of its New England forests may come as a surprise to many Yalies, the sites are often abuzz with their own Yale-related activity. An essential organ of F&ES, the forests provide a space for students and researchers from the University to learn from their surroundings, immerse themselves in nature and form a distinct Yale community away from the buzz of Yale’s urban campus.
A QUIET PLACE
Take a look at a satellite map of the northeastern United States at nighttime. Bright lights dominate a strip of the image, illuminating the coast’s ever-bustling population centers: Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, New York City, Hartford and Boston. But in the midst of all the lights stands a piece of land in Connecticut’s northeastern corner, untainted by the brightness of the city.
This half-a-million-acre dark spot — known as the state’s “Quiet Corner” — has a low density of people, but a high density of trees. Rich Dezso, whose property sits along the western edge of Yale Myers Forest, is one of the less than 4,500 nontree denizens of his small town of Ashford. Soon after he moved to his 25-acre parcel about a decade ago, he started getting to know his neighbor — Yale’s largest forest.
A blurb publicizing a BioBlitz at the forest — a general term for an intensive field study conducted in a condensed period of time — piqued Dezso’s interest shortly after he moved to the area, and he attended the event. Dezso got on the mailing list for other outreach events after attending that event, his first. Dezso is one of many landowners living adjacent to Yale Myers whom Yale Forest administrators have sought to engage in the past several years through outreach programs.
One such program is the Quiet Corner Initiative, established in 2011 as a part of a larger community outreach push that began in the early 2000s, according to Quiet Corner Initiative Manager Jessica Wikle. The initiative seeks to foster exchange between F&ES students working at Yale Myers and the forest’s adjacent landowners. As part of the program, the forest hosts hands-on workshops for landowners about small-scale, private woodlands management as well as summer film and seminar series. Additionally, students from F&ES act as forestry and conservation consultants for landowners neighboring the forests, surveying parcels of land and building a professional management plan tailored towards the needs of the land and its owners.
According to the School Forests website, F&ES students have completed clinical work and research across more than 1,300 acres of forestland, and have written at least 14 management plans for landowners as part of the Woodland Partnership, a program within the Quiet Corner Initiative.
Dezso said he received a management plan for his land within the last year, though he has yet to act on its recommendations.
“The people out here running the forest are really great people,” Dezso said. “They make everybody that comes around feel welcome. And that’s nice. It makes a good impression on the community, and it makes a good neighbor.”
Dezso’s continued involvement with Yale Myers has included participating in the camp’s annual Harvest Festival, attending Quiet Corner summer movie viewings and seminars and going to the occasional workshop. For Dezso, one of the best parts of his involvement with the forest has nothing to do with planned events or trees, but rather with the people he gets to meet. Though students come and go every two or three years, he said that their tenures at the forest is plenty of time to get to know them and build up friendships. On several occasions, he has driven down to New Haven to visit friends on Yale’s campus, and he continues to stay in contact with students he met as long as a decade ago.
Still, Dezso believes the Quiet Corner Initiative and other programming at Yale Myers might not be reaching the entirety of its intended audience. Because the town publishes something Dezso describes as a “once a month booklet” instead of a daily or weekly newspaper, he said it is often difficult to get the word out about events.
“There’s still a lot of people out there that aren’t aware of the Quiet Corner Initiative and the Yale Forest camp and what they have to offer,” Dezso said. “There’s only so much outreach you can actually do, and the people that attend are the ones who are actually seeking out an opportunity to do stuff like that.”
In Dezso’s view, even Yale students are underutilizing Yale’s expansive woodland properties. He noted that he loves to watch new FES students become immersed in the forest during the weeklong summer orientation module program for two- and three-year degree candidates at the beginning of the fall semester, and wishes more Yale students could have similar experiences.
But Dezso realizes that letting out the secret no one is really trying to keep could have the potential to disrupt the relative peace of the area.
“Unfortunately, most people don’t realize what a benefit we have out here,” he said. “Sometimes it’s better that way … then the forests don’t get overrun.”
UP IN FLAMES
Every summer, a group of Master of Forestry candidates heads to Yale Myers to learn practical skills in forestry management as part of the annual Forest Apprentice Program, or “Summer Forest Crew,” as it is more commonly known. Two years ago, the Forest Crew got a lot closer to the forest than they might have expected to.
In late May 2016, the students in the Forest Crew had begun to move their things into the camp at Yale Myers and start their chainsaw training ahead of Memorial Day. When the students left the camp for the holiday weekend, a fire began in the kitchen area and swept through much of the site. Gone were the kitchen and living areas, the bunkhouse, and a recently constructed classroom-dormitory complex.
“Almost everyone lost something in the fire,” then-Forest Crew member Becca Terry FES ’17 recalled.
Terry and most of the other students had not yet moved in all of their belongings at the time, but another member of the group, Yoni Glogower FES ’16, had already moved out of his New Haven apartment and relocated all of his summer things to the site.
Aside from the personal losses, the fire also resulted in some loss of history, according to current forest manager Nick Olson. The flames claimed the original chestnut floors of the lower bunkhouse as well as a beloved elm tree draped over the building. Still, a historic farmhouse at the camp remained standing despite the tragedy. Luckily for the students still planning to live at the site that summer, the flames spared the bathhouse. The exact cause of the fire remains a mystery, Olson said.
For the most part, the students’ summer activities at the forest proceeded as planned. The Forest Crew persevered, making up for the loss of living and cooking areas by sleeping in tents, doing work under a pavilion and eating meals prepared in a food truck. Though the crew was not afforded many of the indoor comforts and luxuries they had originally been promised, several students told the News that morale remained high throughout the summer.
“I think all of us had been camping before, and we chose forestry because we liked to be outside,” Terry said. “It was just like a long camping trip that never ended.”
Connor Hogan FES ’17 went as far as to say that he preferred sleeping in the large tent to sleeping in a permanent structure, as it brought him closer to the forest and its wildlife.
“I could hear barred owls every night,” Hogan recounted. “I could hear coyotes coming up and down the road. I got a better feeling for being outside than I would have [otherwise].”
Throughout the summer, the team built a sense of camaraderie as it worked through challenges presented by the results of the fire, the Forest Crew members said. Hogan recalled that the additional work it took to keep things running smoothly brought the group closer together. He remembers hauling piles of stones from one location to another to get them out of the way of construction crews.
During trying times, the Forest Crew members “all made special efforts to keep things upbeat,” Glogower said. One of these efforts was the “Camper of the Day” award, a homemade bracelet made from snake vertebrae found in Glogower’s car along with an eagle statue recovered from the trash-to-treasure section of the landfill where the campers took their trash. Every day, the title of “Camper of the Day” along with the two trinkets were awarded to someone who had made an admirable contribution to the team. The next day, the current honoree selected their successor.
“I hear that they still do it,” Glogower said. “But I don’t know if they still have the same items.”
Reconstruction of the Yale Myers campsite after the devastating fire happened in “waves,” Olson said. While a bunkhouse opened in summer 2017, the camp was not fully reopened until this past spring, according to Wikles. Upon its reopening, it premiered not only new and improved versions of the leveled structures, but also an open-air auditorium constructed out of locally sourced wood and a new research facility across the road from the main camp, Green said.
And this time around, Olson added, the buildings were constructed with more space between them to prevent a potential fire from spreading. Additionally, the camp hired a caretaker from the community and installed new alarm systems that alert both local fire stations and New Haven–based Yale officials in the case of a fire emergency, according to F&ES’ website.
Hogan, who used to serve as an assistant forest manager, pointed out that aside from the physical growth and improvement of the campsite, Yale Myers is improving itself in other respects, particularly by adding further human capital to the mix. He said the School Forests are working hard to incorporate more professional positions into the management operations of the forests. Hogan sees these additions as having the potential to expand the breadth of the forests’ offerings and access to research.
“The spirit of the School Forests is in the very fabric of an FES experience,” Hogan said. “I’m really hopeful for the forests, especially after this renovation.”
Now, two and a half years after the fire, the Yale Myers campsite is bustling. This past summer, it celebrated a season Olson labeled as the “one of the busiest in terms of full-time residents.”
Among the cohort who lived in the recently rebuilt camp this past summer were the Summer Forest Crew, summer researchers from F&ES and undergraduate interns. Despite differences in experience and areas of interest, the groups formed synergistic relationships both formally and informally, research coordinator Laura Green said.
The undergraduate interns — part of the Summer Internship in Field Ecology program, which was in its second year — worked with professors, post-doctoral researchers and graduate students on a variety of projects in field ecology. Students attended talks by the Forest Crew and assisted professors with research projects. Marc Boudreaux ’21, one of the 2018 interns, said he found it interesting to observe the differences in working style between the Master of Forestry students on Forest Crew versus the scientific researchers studying the forest’s flora and fauna.
Informal connections and collaborations were made at the camp as well, Green said. Since the summer residents lived on the same campsite, it was not difficult for innovative ideas to flow from person to person. For example, Green said an undergraduate intern with computer science savvy created a program to recover a graduate researcher’s lost data.
But sometimes it was simply the day-to-day activities of wooded life that brought forest-loving Yalies together at Yale Myers.
Green spent some time at the Yale Myers campsite this past summer. During her time there, she noticed the onset of a trendy new hobby amongst the forest-dwellers: carving wooden spoons. At the last dinner the summer group ate together, soup was served, and everyone who had made a wooden spoon excitedly brought theirs to the table and used it to dine.
“It’s exciting to be working in a place where you’re connecting not just through scientific study of some kind, but also through all aspects of what it means to live a life,” Green said. “To be living somewhere, doing chores every week, to be taking care of this place together.”
Asha Prihar | firstname.lastname@example.org .
Correction: A previous version of this article misspelled the name of the landowner living adjacent to the Yale Myers Forest. It is Rich Dezso, not Rich Deszo.