Monroe Town Hall
7 Fan Hill Road, Monroe, CT 06468
Conservationists of the Month
Joel C. Thompson
Connecticut Post, July 27, 2008
The Webb Mountain Discovery Zone is designed to introduce young children to the wonders of the woods.
However, what may be found along its several miles of trails, winding around ledges, through a young forest and past about a dozen vernal pools, might also fascinate adults having in-depth knowledge of flora and fauna.
"It's an old farm property that was logged over about 30 years ago," said Tom Ellbogen, Conservation Commission chairman, describing the 171-acre town-owned tract off Webb Circle. "Visitors learn how people and animals have used the land, past and present."
Box turtles, salamanders, tree frogs, deer and woodpeckers are just some of the creatures who frequent the landscape, which features a five-acre hay field left from its farming days. It also has a large stand of mountain laurel amid its ledge outcroppings and young trees.
Stone walls weave across the landscape dotted with reminders of a couple centuries of farming - - remains of a charcoal kiln, a birthing place for cows and a hand dug watering hole for farm animals now functioning as a vernal pool.
The tract, purchased by the town in 2004 from a developer and a family for $5.1 million, adjoins the 170-acre Webb Mountain Park. Means Brook flows from the property to Trapp Falls Reservoir in Shelton. The reservoir is also fed by a 100-acre Aquarion watershed property adjoining Webb Mountain Park and the Discovery Zone.
"Webb Mountain Park, across Webb Circle from the Discovery Zone, is much more rustic, a tougher hike, more isolated," Ellbogen said. "The Discovery Zone is user friendly, across flat or rolling ground, with interpretive signs."
Recently, a big yellow school bus pulled up in front of the entrance to the Discovery Zone. About a dozen children, ages 4 to 7, members of the Tutor Time Summer Camp in Trumbull, hopped out and ran to the benches in Classroom Court, where the trails through the woods begin.
After the children checked for butterflies at a garden next to the court, Denise Cole, one of their teachers, led them on a two-hour trek over Froggy Freeway and Hawk Highway, two of the main trails, to discover what the park contains.
On the way, the children stopped at various teaching stations, with explanatory signs Cole read to them.
One of them involved a grove of cedar trees with a display of tree rings.
The children also visited an area where quartz flakes apparently remain from Indians who made arrowheads and other tools from that rock.
They were asked during their walk to fill out a "scavenger hunt score card," which invited them to find quartz boulders, stone walls, old pastures, decomposed logs, mammal tracks, salamanders and frogs.
"I see a salamander!" Bret Rodgers, 7, of Norwalk, exclaimed as he came upon a rotting log. The other children abandoned their teacher and rushed to see it. But before they got there, the creature had slithered away.
"What did it look like?" one of them asked. "Like a little lizard," Bret replied.
When the walk was over, Zoya Brand, 5, of Stratford, said she had learned about the making of charcoal, and Nicole Gasparrini, of Norwalk, said she was impressed by the cedar trees.
Ellbogen said Tutor Time is one of a series of children's groups that will be visiting the Discovery Zone over the summer to go on a scavenger hunt while learning about the woods.
"We also want to make the park accessible to the Trumbull, Shelton and Newtown schools, not just to Monroe schools," he said.
A number of adults also regularly walk the trails, including Warner Voelpert, of Shelton, who may be seen with his bull mastif, Princess Firgie.
"When the mountain laurel bloomed, it was beautiful here," Voelpert said during one of his walks. "I listen for birds and see a deer once in a while."
This wonderland for naturalists, Ellbogen said, would have succumbed to a cluster development of 95 homes, proposed by Summit Residential had it not been for several years of wrangling by residents at zoning and wetland commission meetings and legal battles waged by the Webb Circle Association.
Ellbogen, who headed the association and lives nearby on Webb Circle, said the developer had plans for 106 of the 171 acres but gave them up when the Trust for Public Land entered the fray and made a deal for the town to buy the site along with 65 acres owned by the Knecht family.
The two parcels together cost the town about $5.1 million, with the state contributing $90,000 toward the total, he recalled.
After the purchase was approved by an overwhelming margin at a town meeting in February 2004, the next step was to make the 171-acre Discovery Zone accessible to the public.
Boy Scout troops and church groups cleared the trails, with the exception of an entry trail created by the town's Public Works Department.
Hank Gruner, a biologist and vice president for programs and exhibits at the Connecticut Science Center in Hartford, due to open next spring, volunteered with Nick Bellantoni, state archeologist, to create a series of 27 teaching stations and the scavenger hunt.
Points of interest, marked by descriptions and pictures, include a 19th century farm road, a black birch enclave, life in a rotten log, lichen, an early 19th century quarry and a natural vernal pool.
Bonnie Maur, science coordinator for the Monroe schools, said the school district has recently revised its curriculum to emphasize "hands-on inquiry-based learning," which will make the Webb Mountain Discovery Zone a valuable resource for students seeking to learn about nature.
"We are encouraging teachers to take their students outside to discover the natural world," Maur said. "We have found connections between the Discovery Zone and the curriculum."
First-graders can explore the butterfly garden, fourth-graders may investigate vernal pools while studying ecosystems and high school biology students can conduct various studies or experiments, Maur said.
"We're going to begin a public relations drive in the fall to let townspeople know what they've got here - its value for children as well as for adults," Ellbogen said. "Our foremost objective is to preserve the property, but we also want to highlight its various aspects so that people can enjoy it."
The Monroe Conservation Commission manages parks and open space properties for the town's enjoyment and use, including Webb Mountain Discovery Zone and WebbMountain Park. It is in the planning stage for the Chalk Hill Nature Trail, Lane's Mines Park, and the Halfway River properties.
Gail Bunovsky, Vice Chairman
Tom Ellbogen, Chairman
Michael O'Reilly, Secretary
Christine Clark, Treasurer
Town Hall Liaisons
meets the first Wednesday of every month at 7:30pm
in the Town Hall conference room.
Public participation is welcome.
Email us at email@example.com with questions, comments
or concerns about our properties and nominations for Conservationist of the Month.