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Physical and Biological Characteristics of the Harvard Forest

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Located in the central Massachusetts town of Petersham, the Forest's varied habitats are typical of those found throughout central New England. More than 90% of the Harvard Forest is closed-canopy forest. Almost all of the forests in the region are second-growth, following millennia of stewardship by Indigenous people and then extensive agricultural clearing and logging that peaked in the mid-1800s. The primary forests that remain (i.e., those forests that were never fully cleared for agriculture) were typically utilized as woodlots.

Forested and open wetlands cover about 4% of the land base. Most streams are intermittent, and headwater brooks flow into the Swift River and Miller's River watersheds. One major stream, the East Branch of the Swift River, flows through the Slab City Tract. Harvard Pond is a 25 ha dammed pond within the Tom Swamp Tract, and the Harvard Forest borders two other ponds. The Harvard Forest maintains approximately 40 ha as open pasture, and nearly 50 km of gravel woods roads.

View the Harvard Forest Land Use Master Plan - Executive Summary


  • North-central Massachusetts
  • 42.5°N Latitude; 72°W Longitude

Land Base

  • Petersham, MA: 1425 ha
      Prospect Hill: 585 ha
      Tom Swamp: 450 ha
      Slab City: 215 ha
      Simes Tract: 125 ha
      Schwarz Tract: 18 ha
      Harvard Farm: 29 ha
  • Royalston, MA: 30 ha Tall Timbers Tract
  • Hamilton, MA: 47 ha Matthews Plantation
  • Winchester, NH: 8 ha Pisgah Tract, which is part of the 5000 ha Pisgah State Forest


  • Cool, moist temperate
  • July mean temperature 20°C
  • January mean temperature -7°C
  • Annual mean precipitation 110 cm, distributed fairly evenly throughout the year


  • New England Upland Region
  • Elevation: 220m to 410m above sea level
  • Bedrock: granite, gneiss and schist


  • Mainly sandy loam glacial till, with some alluvial and colluvial deposits
  • Moderately to well drained in most areas
  • Acidic
  • Average depth 1m


Dominant species:

  • Red oak (Quercus rubra)
  • Red maple (Acer rubrum)
  • Black birch (Betula lenta)
  • White pine (Pinus strobus)
  • Eastern hemlock (Tsuga canadensis)

Species found on drier soils:

  • White oak (Quercus alba)
  • Black oak (Quercus velutina)
  • Hickory (Carya ovata)
  • Chestnut (Castanea dentata), now only found in understory because of chestnut blight

On moist, cool, but well-drained sites:

  • Yellow birch (Betula alleghaniensis)
  • Beech (Fagus grandifolia)
  • Sugar maple (Acer saccharum)
  • Paper birch (Betula papyrifera)
  • White ash (Fraxinus americana)
  • Hemlock
  • White pine

In peatlands:

  • Red spruce (Picea rubens)
  • Black spruce (Picea mariana)
  • Larch (Larix laricina)


  • Conifer plantations cover about 7% of Harvard Forest land