The forest that now occupies the Hudson Highlands first developed nearly 14,000 years ago, following the retreat of the Pleistocene glaciers. Since that time, the forest has undergone numerous changes in response to a variety of factors. For a thorough understanding of the Black Rock Forest, it is important to keep this evolution in mind. The Forest that we see today is simply a snapshot image along a timeline of nearly continual change.
See more information about the history of the Black Rock Forest Consortium.
Read about the Forest’s land use history, including descriptions and maps of old homesteads inside the Forest, in a report by Dr. Neil Maher, an environmental historian.
The initial forests here were dominated by northern conifers such as spruce and fir. These gave way to hardwoods, including oak and chestnut, as the climate continued to warm after glacial retreat. Over the past 10,000 years, the species composition has continued to change in response to short- and long-term variations in climate and human activities. These changes continue today and may be accelerating if some climate change predictions prove to be accurate.
In addition to climate, humans have also affected the forests in profound ways since Native Americans first arrived in the region following the retreat of the glaciers. While we still lack detail about their specific impacts on the Black Rock Forest, their activities in adjoining areas included large settlements, intensive hunting, and use of fire as a forest management tool. These activities had tremendous and often under-appreciated impacts on the landscape.
With the arrival of European settlers in this area around 1690, human impacts became even more extensive. Activities such as repeated clearcutting for timber and fuel, iron ore mining, charcoal production, and the extraction of tannins from hemlock trees peaked during the 1800s. The least rugged portions of the Black Rock Forest were developed as homesteads, farms, and orchards. Many artifacts from this era can still be found in the area. The Stone House, located in the center of the Forest, was originally built in 1834 and remains as the sole surviving structure from this period. Much of the human activity during this period was haphazard and uncontrolled, and often caused or was followed by fires. As a result, the forest at the turn of the century was badly degraded, and bore little resemblance to the marvelous Black Rock Forest we see today.
Establishment of Black Rock Forest
In the late 1800s and early 1900s, the small tracts of land that make up the Forest were purchased by the Stillman family. In 1928, the Black Rock Forest was officially designated as a research and demonstration forest by the owner, Dr. Ernest G. Stillman. Dr. Stillman's dream was to return the land to productive use by instituting the techniques of practical forestry, which had recently been introduced in the United States. Dr. Stillman hired a full-time forester and woods crew which began to weed out poorly formed trees and undesirable species. Numerous other forestry "treatments" followed, including plantings, fertilizations, and a variety of selective logging operations. The forest slowly improved in health, with much of the change specifically “guided by human hands.”
In 1949, Dr. Stillman died and left the Black Rock Forest to his alma mater, Harvard University, in his will. For the next 40 years it was known as the Harvard Black Rock Forest. The emphasis continued on practical forestry as well as research into silvicultural methods and forest tree growth. Over the years from 1928 to 1989, about 75 scientific publications resulted from research activities in the Black Rock Forest. Through all this time the Forest was very carefully managed and preserved by three successive foresters, Hal Tryon (1927-1949), Ben Stout (1949-1959), and Jack Karnig (1959-1992).In 1989, William T. Golden purchased the Forest from Harvard University and created a not-for-profit corporation, the Black Rock Forest Preserve, which owns the land and buildings. The Preserve, in turn, leases the land and facilities to the Black Rock Forest Consortium. More information about the history of the Consortium is available here.