Soapbox: Take a Hike! Discover Connecticut’s Historic Landscapes

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By Patty Pendergast SUMMER 2006

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Have you ever walked a trail through our woodlands and felt as though you’d slipped through a portal to a long-ago land? In spite of the fact that Connecticut is one of the most densely populated states in the nation, averaging 700 people per square mile, there are some remarkably remote places within easy access of the state’s more populated areas. All of this is by design, thanks in large part to the Connecticut Forest & Park Association.

The mid 1800s found our natural resources fueling rapidly advancing industry. Our farms were being abandoned through westward migration as farmers sought more abundant and productive land in the mid-West, and our woodlands were being burnt for charcoal, energy, and industry. The air was heavy with smoke, and waterways were full of silt. A band of intrepid visionaries looked at the scorched, spare landscape and decided to do something about it.

In 1895, the Connecticut Forestry Association (CFA) was founded in the Reverend Horace Winslow’s parlor in Simsbury.  The state’s landscape was 25% forest and 75% open land.

Between 1901 and 1903, in a series of “firsts,” the CFA proposed the establishment of the office of State Forester, the first such state office in the nation. The CFA next initiated in the legislature the first state forest land acquisition program and then championed the purchase of the Portland State Forest (now Meshomasic State Forest), the first state forest in New England. The CFA proposed and secured enactment of the Connecticut Forest Fire Laws (the first in New England) and the first bill reducing taxation on land committed to forestry. In 1920 the association launched a private fundraising campaign to create an aptly named Peoples State Forest and to promote the acquisition of more parks and forestlands.  In 1928, the CFA incorporated as the Connecticut Forest & Park Association (CFPA) and within the year established the Blue-Blazed Hiking Trail System.  In 1928, that CFPA created the prototype for the Civilian Conservation Corps, a public works program created by President Roosevelt’s administration to provide work for men during the Depression; in parks and forests throughout the state, you can still find beautiful wooden bridges, huts, dams, and buildings created by CCC workers.
Through the century since CFA and its successor organization CFPA formed, the landscape and people’s relationship to the landscape have changed dramatically. Our economy evolved from a natural resource base to human resources. We no longer work outdoors, but predominately indoors.  Most of what we know about trees comes from what we see through our car windshield. Regardless of whether our founders could even imagine this state of affairs, their quick actions changed the landscape. Connecticut is now 60% forested. We are the 13th most forested state in the nation, with a remarkable 700-mile hiking trail system that crosses public and private lands.

The best part is up to you now. Get out and enjoy these trails—and this surprisingly lovely state.

Patty Pendergast coordinates membership and government relations for the Connecticut Forest and Park Association.

The Connecticut Forest and Park Association, a private non-profit organization, recently released the East edition of the Connecticut Walk Book; the West edition is to be released later this year. Together the Connecticut Walk Books provide information about all 700 miles of the state’s volunteer-maintained Blue-Blazed Hiking Trails. To purchase a copy of The Connecticut Walk Book East ($24.95 plus $6.50 tax and shipping), visit the CFPA Web site at http://www.ctwoodlands.org/bookstore/pubs.html.

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