New preserve expands New Milford’s hiking and outdoor opportunities
NEW MILFORD — As children, the Hunt brothers — Mark and Brian — spent a lot of time camping and hiking on a 107-acre parcel that borders Route 7.
Generations of children will have similar experiences with the opening of the Eleanor and Howard Hunt Nature Preserve, named for the brothers’ parents, who had owned the land for more than 50 years.
“I hope a lot of people go there and hike and enjoy the natural beauty,” Brian Hunt said. “I hope they enjoy it how we did.”
The land was protected last year by the Weantinoge Heritage Land Trust and opened to the public on Saturday as part of National Trails Day. Anyone can use it from dawn until dusk.
When Eleanor Hunt died in December 2015, the brothers were left with the property and had to decide whether to sell or donate it. Based on their parents’ dedication to preservation, the brothers chose to donate it.
“They had a sense of history and preserving older things,” Mark Hunt said. “They had a long-term outlook. If you’re doing something in memory of folks who thought like that, nothing is more long-term than preserving land in perpetuity.”
The family bought and renovated a 1790s farmhouse where they lived for decades. Eleanor Hunt also saved an old school house and sat on the town’s historical society.
He said the Hunts’ gift will preserve more land and natural habitats in New Milford, create a scenic view along Route 7 and protect the quality of the Housatonic River and its watershed.
The preserve abuts the Tory’s Cave Preserve and brings the trust’s acreage there to about 115 acres. The trust has owned the Tory Cave preserve since 1978, but had to close the bat cave to the public last year to help restore the declining bat population.
“Because the cave is closed, it provides a lot more recreational opportunities for those coming to the cave,” Elconin said.
About a mile of trail existed on the property, including about a half-mile of the Blue-Blazed Trail, a collection of about 825 miles of trails across the state, including eight from Gaylordsville to Candlewood Mountain, and overseen by the Connecticut Forest and Park Association.
The New Milford Youth Agency extended the trails by about a half-mile with the creation of the Spur Trail, which is marked with red circles. The agency built a kiosk and steps leading from the parking area on Route 7 to the trail.
“It’s amazing how many people use the trails in the area,” said Mark Mankin, the youth agency’s executive director. “This expands an existing system. It’s a really nice thing because it’s centrally located in town.”
Elconin said the trust has no plans to create more trails, but hopes to work with the Connecticut Forest and Park Association to move a section of the Blue-Blazed Trail more into the woods and not through the housing developments next to the preserve. He said the work would take about two days with a crew of eight to 10 volunteers.
He said the new preserve will need volunteers, just like the trust’s other properties. The trust protects more than 9,700 acres in 17 towns. The land is spread out between wildlife sanctuaries, 15 working farms and 12 nature preserves that are open to the public with more than 15 miles of hiking trails.
The Hunt property has a unique history.
It was owned by Kent Iron Co. in the 1800s and used to create charcoal by burning wood piles. The charcoal was then burned to create iron for guns and cannons used in the Civil War and locomotive parts until the 1890s.
The Hunts purchased the property in 1964 for $10,000, using money from their life insurance to cover it and partnering with other relatives. The property was used for logging and foresting over the years.
The charcoal mounds are still visible throughout the property. Elconin hopes to raise money to add signs on the trail highlighting these features.
“If you scratch your foot on the wood floor, you can still see charcoal, even though it hasn’t been used for years,” Brian Hunt said.
The preserve offers a mix of old and new forest, and has large boulders for hikers to climb.
Hardly any invasive plants are found in the preserve, Elconin said.
“This is what the landscape looked like before we had invasive species,” he said. “It gives you the best feel for the Housatonic Valley land.”