About > History
There has been both considerable change and remarkable continuity in Highstead’s mission and management since its origins in 1982.
Building the Arboretum
Highstead’s unique commitment to science, conservation, and aesthetics can be traced back to its beginnings as a 36-acre arboretum. Rather than create a traditional arboretum in which a wide variety of exotic plants are cultivated in a landscape heavily manipulated for their display, Highstead decided to take a more ecological and conservation-minded approach in which a limited number of native plant collections were established within a natural and lightly managed wooded landscape. Such a setting provided for the study and quiet appreciation of native plants and their cultivars within beautiful and largely undisturbed woodland.
Highstead’s first several years were devoted to building the arboretum’s infrastructure: exploring and documenting the landscape; installing utilities; and constructing access roads, woodland trails, and a boardwalk through the swamp. The pond and wildflower meadow were created for aesthetic enhancement and to increase the diversity of native plants, habitats and wildlife on the property. Plant collections, including the Kalmia, Azalea, and Sweet Pepperbush, were established as a core focus for the arboretum and to introduce people to some of the varieties of woody plants that could be grown in southern Connecticut.
The Highstead property grew to include 100-plus acres of woodland habitat, meadows, swamps and ponds with additional infrastructure and programs to enhance the visitor experience, including: (1) the timber-frame "Barn" headquarters that provides office, lecture, work, greenhouse, library and herbarium space; and (2) an educational program of diverse lectures, workshops, and guided walks for visitors, collaborators, and members.
Adding a Focus on Ecological Research and Monitoring
Highstead also added woodland demonstrations to showcase sustainable forest management and performed ecological and historical surveys on the property in collaboration with university researchers, botanical gardens, and local volunteers.
In 2004, Highstead added permanent forest monitoring plots that are surveyed every five years to (1) increase our understanding and guide management of the wooded property through time, and (2) help visitors better understand and appreciate how to track forest change in their own woodlands. In 2006, Highstead hired a staff ecologist to oversee this work who also performs research on large herbivore-forest dynamics and forest history with academic collaborators across New England.
Expanding the Mission to Include a Regional Conservation Focus
Over time, Highstead recognized that there would be real value in expanding our local work to take on a more regional forest conservation focus. Our forests are vitally important at the regional scale as they clean our air, filter our water, shelter wildlife, and combat climate change. Our forests also provide recreation, rejuvenation, and vital employment in the wood products and recreational sectors.
The 2005 Harvard Forest report, Wildlands and Woodlands: A Vision for Massachusetts, reinforced the fact that the forests of New England are at escalating risk from fragmentation and development and that concerted conservation action is necessary today to maintain our forested landscape for future generations. Highstead identified Wildlands and Woodlands (W&W) as a strategic opportunity to play a leadership role in woodland conservation and expanded our efforts to include research and conservation across southern New England and eastern New York, hiring a regional conservationist and working with The Harvard Forest and other W&W leaders to ensure that the W&W vision becomes an on-the-ground collaborative effort to double the pace of forestland conservation while we still have this spectacular chance.
During that period, Highstead convened on a regular basis both Massachusetts and Connecticut groups interested in advancing W&W, and started convening and assisting regional conservation partnerships (RCPs) – informal groups of land trusts, local communities and others that band together to work across town and other boundaries to achieve conservation on a larger scale. Highstead began working closely with specific RCPs including a leadership role in the local Fairfield County Regional Conservation Partnership, the MassConn Sustainable Forest Partnership, and others as helpful. Highstead embraced the W&W principle that it will be these kind of locally grounded, diverse initiatives that step forward and help double the pace of conservation in the region.
In 2010, Harvard Forest W&W authors teamed up with fellow academics from across the region to write an expanded W&W vision for all of New England, documenting that each state is now losing forests on a net annual basis and calling for conservation of 70% of the forested landscape, with 90% in sustainable timber and 10% as protected timberlands. And Highstead in turn stepped up its collaborative leadership role and expanded its conservation focus to all of New England.
Highstead's Leadership Role in the Wildlands and Woodlands Initiative (W&W) Today
Today, Highstead partners with the Harvard Forest to take the lead in advancing the Wildlands and Woodlands (W&W) Initiative through extensive collaboration with regional partners and lead roles in W&W initiatives including the RCP Network and the New England Forest Policy Group, as described in more detail on the Highstead and W&W websites. Highstead hired a Conservation Director who serves as the W&W Coordinator and a Communications Director who plays a lead role in formulating and implementing W&W communications and outreach strategies.
In addition to building an expanded staff to help advance W&W, Highstead has created a number of new programs to help move W&W forward, including:
- A new internship program that offers research and educational opportunities in ecology and conservation to undergraduate students; and
- A Senior Fellowship program that allow professionals and academics to pursue scholarship and innovative applications in diverse areas of regional conservation.
It is an exciting period of transition and growth for the organization, and the Highstead mission statement now reflects its broader science and conservation vision:
“Highstead works to conserve the forested landscape of New England through science, sound stewardship, and collaboration with our regional partners."
In the meantime, the 100-plus acre Highstead property is still managed according to the same core commitment to the natural landscape that guided the Dudleys from the very beginning. Highstead’s origins as an arboretum are still very much evident in its extensive Kalmia collection, its native woodland walk and its careful native plantings around the Barn that delight and educate visitors year round. Highstead is also expressly managed to serve as a local example of the Wildlands and Woodlands vision to help people appreciate their own lands and local surrounds as part of our shared New England landscape.
Whether visitors come to Highstead for a tour of our ecological research, a conservation lecture, or a stroll through the Kalmia in bloom, our hope is that they leave inspired by the natural world and committed to sound stewardship and conservation of their own property and the New England landscape as a whole.