Town Forests
"A town is the woods and swamps that surround it." (Henry David Thoreau)

What Is A Town Forest?

Located within the limits of a town, suburb or city, a town forest is distinct from a "park." A town forest is generally a contiguous tract of municipally owned land (it may be connected to other forest "islands" by conservation "corridors") that is dominated by trees, often of various ages and species. It usually contains a diverse wildlife population with woody and herbaceous vegetation forming the understory. It is a "multiple use" forest; that is, it is managed to provide people with recreational opportunities such as hiking, birding, photography and cross-country skiing, to protect watersheds and wildlife; to educate users about nature and the forest environment; and it may be selectively harvested for timber and fuelwood.


What Are The Benefits Of A Town Forest?

As everyone knows, there is often far more profit in developing a piece of land than in keeping it in forest, but more forested land in, for example, Switzerland and Germany is kept forested because they recognize that there are very real benefits. In the U.S. the first town forest was established in New Hampshire in 1711, but Europeans have been managing and protecting their town forests since the Middle Ages. For example, intensively managed European town woodlands are:

  • Diverse -- They contain a wide range of species and trees of differing ages and, thus, the woodland is less vulnerable to the effects of disease and pests.

  • Accessible -- From the center of Zurich (to note one example), citizens are no more than 30 minutes away from scenic woodland paths.

  • Environmental Assets -- These forests protect public water supplies (for example, nearly 25 percent of the water used in Zurich is from town forest ground water) and provide habitat for a wide range of birds and animals.

  • A Source of Pride -- There are few instances of vandalism because the citizens who enjoy them regard the forests as their own.

  • Productive -- They are more than twice as productive in terms of supplying wood products as forests in the United States.

  • Used For Recreation -- In addition to traditional activities like hiking and cross-country skiing, the town forests provide special areas where children can play and where joggers can run through physical fitness courses called "parcours."

  • An Economic Asset -- In some town forests, timber sales pay for virtually all recreational activities. In Zurich the population is so large that timber sales help, but the forest is invaluable in that it provides open space and recreation for thousands of people.

Why Haven't Connecticut Communities Established Town Forests?

We have! Since 1984, an increasing number of Connecticut towns have used professional consultants to establish sound forest management practices on both private and town-owned land. Until recently, however, Connecticut's town forests have been overlooked and underappreciated. Connecticut towns own more than 29,000 acres of forest land that is contained within 95 towns (based on a 1984 survey in which 137 out of 169 towns responded). The size of Connecticut's town forests ranges from the five-acre "vest-pocket" forest in Scotland and the 55-acre educational forest in Westbrook, to the 2,400-acre forest in Meriden.

Municipalities may have been slow to develop town forests because officials and citizens don't know how to:

  • Acquire forest land.

  • Establish a town forest legally.

  • Obtain the advice of professional forestry experts.

In addition municipal officials and citizens may:

  • Have chosen to leave their forest in a "natural" state.

  • Not be aware of the potential for a forest to simultaneously provide recreation, aesthetics, education and even wood products.

  • Fear increased forest use because they believe it would increase maintenance costs. Officials might not understand that more use can also lead to financial support from appreciative users.

  • Have virtually no information about their forests. Lacking the most basic knowledge about forest inventories and cover types, they cannot begin to devise an appropriate management plan.

  • Not even be aware that their community owns forest land.

In contrast to Europeans who have a tradition of town forests, in the U.S. we have a history of developing the forested lands into commercial, industrial and residential sites. Given the long-term economic and social benefits of town forests (particularly the opportunities for recreation vital to the well-being of core city residents), there is clearly a need to plan for areas where a managing a town forest for profit is a viable alternative.

On What Legal Basis Can A Town Forest Be Established?

According to Connecticut General Statutes Chapter 97, Sec. 7-131(a), "the legislative body of any town, city or borough may vote to establish a municipal forest for the purpose of raising timber, protecting water supplies, providing opportunities for outdoor recreation or employment of relief labor. For such forest such town, city or borough may appropriate money and purchase land, accept land or money by gift or bequest and allocate any land to which it holds title and which is suitable for the production of timber."

How Can My Community Establish A Town Forest?

Now that you understand the benefits of a town forest, with the help of officials (e.g. forest commission, conservation commission), you can identify and set aside woodlands for a town forest. To do so you will need to:

  • Educate the public about the economic and social benefits of a town forest through public meetings and media contacts.

  • Solicit the cooperation of a wide range of persons in your community, including local officials, environmental groups, influential businesses and professional persons.

  • Cultivate the support of "ordinary" citizens by establishing the town forest in the name of a worthy group or cause - e.g. name it the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Town Forest or dedicate it to the community's children.

How Can My Community Create A Management Plan For A Town Forest?

If you want your town forest to provide a full range of ecological, social and economic benefits, you need to create and implement a forest management plan. To do this, professional assistance will be required. You will need to:


FOR MORE INFORMATION about Connecticut's Urban Forestry Program contact:

Robert M. Ricard, Ph.D., CF
Senior Extension Educator

* Urban and Community Forestry

* Human Dimensions of Natural Resources
West Hartford Extension Center
1800 Asylum Avenue
West Hartford, CT 06117
Tel: (860) 570-9257
Fax: (860) 570-9008

Advice and Assistance:
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  College of Agriculture and Natural Resources
Cooperative Extension System
1376 Storrs Road, Unit 4036
Storrs, Connecticut 06269

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