Tucked away in the thick, green woodlands of northeastern Connecticut, Goodwin State Forest offers 2,000 acres of trees and trails, wildlife and waterways. The land and buildings were gifted to the public in 1964, three years before the property’s namesake, one of America’s first professional foresters and conservationists, James L. Goodwin, passed away. His legacy was to be used for education about “general, wildlife, and forest conservation.” Today, Goodwin State Forest is both a hidden gem and a shining example of how man and nature benefit each other.
Born in 1881 to a wealthy and prominent Hartford family, James L. Goodwin attended the fledgling Yale School of Forestry. When he graduated in 1913, he purchased three acres of white pine and 25 acres of open field in Hampton. Of his first piece of property, Goodwin wrote, “…it was my ambition to own, develop, and operate my own timber acres according to the best forestry principles.” Over the next 50 years, Goodwin gradually acquired more land, named his private woodland “Pine Acres Farm” and practiced state-of-the-art forest management on it.
His first crop was Christmas trees, which he planted in 1921 and sold every year until 1964. Eventually, Goodwin accumulated nearly 2,000 contiguous acres from which he harvested Christmas trees, stands of timber, and apple orchards. “Today the land … is a living display of forest practices common in Connecticut. The interpretive museum … explains the natural sciences of the art of forestry. The lake vicinity has become the central hiking area of the forest and a great place to observe wildlife”, according to the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection’s website (www.ct.gov/deep).
Goodwin’s modern forest management plan was created to sustain ecology and actively maintain the forest to benefit the center. Trees are sold to loggers or sawed into boards at the DEEP sawmill in Portland to be used in state forests and parks throughout the state.
Today, the property is managed jointly in a unique public/private partnership between the State Department of Energy & Environmental Protection and the non-profit Connecticut Forest & Park Association. There is also an extremely active “Friends of Goodwin” volunteer group, which donates thousands of hours to maintaining and improving the forest’s offerings. With the solidly established roots of these three organizations plus an endowment left by James L. Goodwin, the forest has been funded, staffed and grown into a rich center of activity, learning and outdoor fun. With the combined support of the CFPA, DEEP and the trust, a program director and naturalist can be employed year-round.
“This partnership allows more security for Goodwin and there’s a lot more energy and ideas,” says Director Beth Bernard. “We also have four part-time staff. Everyone works really hard trying to get out as many good programs for the public as we can.” The Goodwin Forest Conservation Education Center offers adult and family programs on wildlife, conservation and forestry topics. “We tend to focus on hot topics,” Bernard says. “We did a gypsy moth program last month. But some programs are always popular, like wild edible plants and mushroom identification. People love learning what they can eat in the forest.”
Jasper Sha has been Goodwin’s naturalist for over a year. Along with Bernard, he helps create, organize and promote the nature center’s programs—averaging around 15 to 20 each month.
“I have been to other forests and I consider Goodwin an oasis,” he says. “We have almost everything here: the pond, amazing trails, a mix of man-made things and wild habitat. People who come here tend to fall in love with it. It’s a little gem. With the amount and quality of programming we produce, it’s a great way to have a hands-on experience of nature you don’t get other places.” You can even learn how to operate a chainsaw.
Sha’s goal is to continue to improve and diversify their offerings. “I try to add different programs, not just hikes but also things like taxidermy, an apiary series, survival programs. I try to hit trends—like, foraging is really big here.” Regular monthly offerings include a book club, a gardeners’ round table, two senior walks, and two long distance (6-7 mile) hikes. Plans are in the works for Halloween, Walktober, snowshoeing hikes, and ice fishing (weather pending). Staff members have also been developing a Master Naturalist Program that might be adopted by DEEP to be replicated across the state. Similar to the state’s Master Gardener certification, this educational program will help develop a diverse community of naturalists and promote stewardship of the environment.
The regional community of nature enthusiasts is very important to Goodwin. “Part of the reason we have been able to offer programs is that we have been really good at connecting with people with expertise in the community,” Bernard says. In fact, Goodwin is always looking for volunteers with knowledge of conservation-related topics and the ability and desire to share that knowledge. Teaching experience helps but is not required. Sha has also brought in UConn students to lead science-based programs, which helps students gain experience engaging with the public.
Goodwin also thrives off the strength of its incredible volunteer organization, The Friends of Goodwin Forest. Collectively, the Friends of Goodwin—which claims about 300 dues paying members—spend thousands of volunteer hours on trail and garden maintenance as well as supporting educational programs and raising public awareness and money. In 2016, more than 125 volunteers helped out with activities.
Steve Broderick has been president of the Friends of Goodwin Forest since 2015. Prior to that, he served as part-time director of Goodwin Forest from 2008 to 2013 and for 30 years before that as UConn’s Extension Forester, where he taught loggers, foresters, landowners forestry techniques.
“I always loved this place and was fascinated by the story of James Goodwin, who was one of America’s first professional foresters,” he says. When he was hired in 2008 as part-time director, there was no staff or programming because of a lack of funding. “After we worked out an agreement to have CFPA help support a part-time director, they hired me. It eventually became clear that there were a lot of volunteers that loved the place, that came and worked on the trails and gardens and education programs. It made sense that we organize so they could speak with one voice and support the center in an effective way.” The Friends started in 2010.
“…I would challenge you to find a trail system anywhere in the state that is better maintained, blazed and marked with kiosks and maps,” says Broderick. “Every year we’re contributing about 2,500 volunteer hours, which works out to 1½ full-time staff working year-round.”
Broderick says their goal is to draw nature lovers and newcomers alike. “We try to get people hooked on the woods at all ages,” he says.
The groups holds two major fundraisers every year, the Friends of Goodwin Trail Run and a Native Plant Sale. The Trail Run happens the first weekend in June and registers up to 250 runners. The challenging 30K (~18.6 miles) and 10K (~5.8 miles) courses are popular with both elite and amateur endurance trail runners. There are also Open House events to honor volunteers and to teach newcomers about the organization. One is planned for October.
Visitors can come any time for a DIY hike, paddle, or picnic. The James L. Goodwin Forest and Conservation Education Center is located at 23 Potter Road, Hampton, CT. The forest, trails, ponds and gardens are open from sunup to sundown year-round. Admission and parking are free. The nature center and museum are open part-time; please call ahead when planning a visit. 860-455-9534. To get a current list of events and programs delivered to your email box, subscribe to the Goodwin Conservation Center email listserv. Directions are on the CT DEEP and Friends of Goodwin websites or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
To learn more:
Friend of Goodwin: www.friendsofgoodwinforest.org
Connecticut Forest & Park Association (CFPA): www.ctwoodlands.org
Connecticut Department of Energy & Environmental Protection (CT DEEP): www.ct.gov/deep (has Goodwin maps to download and print)
• 17 miles of well-maintained and marked trails for hiking, mountain biking, cross-country skiing, snowshoeing and horseback riding
• Popular trails: The Forest Discovery Trail, the Blue-Blazed Natchaug Trail, the Air Line State Park Trail and the Children’s Discovery Trail
• 3 large ponds for fishing, bird watching, and boating
• The Richard D. Haley Native Plant Wildlife Gardens—a 1.5-acre native plant arboretum
• The Goodwin Conservation Center, with self-guided pictorial history of 100 years of the land’s forestry program
• A diverse array of year-round programs for all ages (hikes, bird walks, book club, nature ID, survival skills, kids’ activities & much more)
• The Goodwin Nature Museum, with natural history displays plus wildlife and forestry education materials
• A youth group camping area, with dining pavilion, large pole building, and tent space
• A picnic pavilion that seats 50 overlooking the 189-acre Pine Acres Pond