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Conserving Cornwall's Core Forests

"I want to say, on this matter of tree-planting by the roadside, that there is no greater farm waste than shading your farms by useless trees…. It is one of the growing evils of farming in the State of Connecticut that we are permitting these trees to grow in every corner of our land and around every fence, and they make our farming land look hideous. Cut them down!" ~ S. S. West, Annual Meeting of the Connecticut Board of Agriculture, January 1888

Cornwall trees and forests have come a long way since their clearing from 1850 to 1900.

Today our core forests are a unique asset, valuable to Cornwall, the State, the Country, and the Planet. Conserving more of Cornwall’s forests will not only protect against the effects of climate change but will also attract residents and boost the local economy.

Cornwall is geographically large – 46 square miles – more than twice the size of Manhattan at 22 square miles. (see figure 1)

Fig.1: "Manhattan vs. Cornwall"

The amount of forested land in Cornwall has tracked the local economic history, starting with early settlers in the primeval forest of the early 1700’s through their eradication for farming and iron making in the 1800’s to their revival as havens from urban development in the 1900’s.

In 1776 Cornwall had a problem with its abundance of forest. People from other towns took advantage of those forests by letting their cattle graze in them.

Here is an extract from Cornwall’s town meeting of December 16, 1776:

“That, whereas it has for many years happened that some persons belonging to other towns & places have drove many of their cattle, horses, sheep & swine into this town to feed in the woods during the summer season or longer, & thereby much hurt the woods and commons in this town…and some persons belonging to this town have usually taken care of and given salt to such cattle…voted for the future…every such person shall forfeit and pay for every such offense the sum of twenty shillings lawful money….”

By 1880 Cornwall residents had cut most of those forests for farming and charcoal for iron making.

Cream Hill, late 1800's.
Collection of the Cornwall Historical Society

Starting in the 1920’s conservation of forests in Cornwall experienced a resurgence thanks to forward thinking persons of the time. It began with individuals who donated land to the State that has become the approximately 7,000 acres of state forests in Cornwall. In 1987 a group of foresighted citizens established the Cornwall Conservation Trust. Since then we added about 1500 acres of protected forest. Today we have forests that are more like the Cornwall of 1776. (see Figure 2)

Fig. 2: Forest Cover in Cornwall, 2019

Our forests offer clean air and water, habitat for flora and fauna, a carbon sink to reduce a greenhouse gas and otherwise promote resilience to climate change, a source for forest products, and opportunities for recreation.

All of the drinking water in Cornwall comes from precipitation filtered through trees whose root systems prevent impurities from entering our drinking water. Trees and the forest core stabilize our stream banks and limit erosion. Penn State researchers have discovered that a single deciduous tree can intercept 500 to 750 gallons of water a year and a mature evergreen more than 4,000 gallons per year. Forests are clearly an important line of defense against heavy precipitation events and ensuing flood damage.

Most importantly our existing forests will better protect us from the ravages of climate change by storing far more carbon than newly planted trees. (see Figure 3)

Fig. 3: Carbon storage by Tree Species
Vermont Dept. of Forests, Parks and Recreation

Cornwall’s forests are part of a much larger green belt of forests stretching from just above New York City to Canada. (see Figure 4)

Fig. 4: "Follow the Forests"

The Housatonic Valley Association and its Litchfield Hills Greenprint Alliance, of which Cornwall Conservation Trust is a member, has a program “Follow the Forest” to help conserve these valuable core forests.

Core forest is defined as those parts of the forest that are surrounded by more forest. Conservation of core forest seeks to reduce forest fragmentation and protect our existing largest trees.

Follow the Forest seeks to save an additional 50,000 acres (78 square miles) of core forest in the 2000 square mile Housatonic River watershed. That would achieve about a 50% conservation rate for the Housatonic River watershed that is an important part of that forest corridor from New York to Canada

Cornwall has an important role to play in Follow the Forest.

This map of Cornwall (see Figure 5) and a bit of nearby towns shows in green core forest that is at least 50% conserved and in yellow less than 50%. The goal is to turn yellow to green. Not that much more needs to be done in Cornwall to get to protecting 50% of its core forests.

Fig. 5: "Protected Core Forest"

We believe that Cornwall will do the right thing and protect our forests into the future. The sentiment of Cornwall residents lean towards conservation and is clearly expressed in the Plan of Conservation and Development.

In conclusion, Cornwall Conservation Trust promotes conservation of our unique valuable core forests through a “both, and” effort. Two years ago we sponsored a seminar bringing together conservation and economic development. Last year we sponsored a Farm Cornwall seminar bringing together farmers in Cornwall and ideas for resources to help them farm. Cornwall clearly is green today and should be green forever and economically vibrant if we do the right thing now by protecting more of Cornwall’s core forests and encouraging smart targeted development.

-Barton Jones