Land baron

Harvard's holdings extend presence across the region

By Mark Arsenault
Globe Correspondent / April 9, 2009
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It's hard to divorce Harvard University from iconic images of ancient brick buildings around manicured greens in Cambridge, near where solitary rowers pull single sculls along the Charles River.

But less known is that the university is a sprawling enterprise with land holdings and facilities across the region. The school owns more than 4,000 acres in the Boston suburbs and Central Massachusetts, much of it woodlands, used for research and teaching in the sciences, medicine, and American history. From the homestead of a Revolutionary War general in Shrewsbury to toppled old-growth trees in southern New Hampshire still yielding information about the Hurricane of 1938, Harvard's reach extends far from Cambridge.

University researchers study animals for tips to make better robots, trees for help designing models of the world's climate, and everyday objects from the 18th century to learn what daily life was like around the birth of the nation.

About 70 miles west of the main campus in Cambridge lies the bulk of the 102-year-old Harvard Forest, which comprises some 3,000 acres in several parcels in Petersham, Phillipston, and Royalston, as well as a 99-acre parcel in Hamilton. Environmentalists became alarmed in late 2007 when reports surfaced that Harvard wanted to sell the Hamilton property; Harvard, however, dismissed the reports as overblown. The university also owns a small tract of woods in Winchester, N.H., said John O'Keefe, forest museum coordinator in Petersham, near the Quabbin Reservoir.

Most Harvard Forest land remains wild. "It's woods with varying levels of instrumentation and research paraphernalia," said O'Keefe.

One of the long-term experiments in Harvard Forest is to measure how much carbon dioxide the forest is taking from the atmosphere. "We do that with a pretty complex instrumentation setup that samples the air above the forest canopy and within the canopy, that looks at instantaneous changes in the concentration of carbon dioxide to oxygen and water vapor," said O'Keefe.

These tests have been ongoing since the early 1990s, he said. "So we have a long-term record of how much carbon this forest is actually storing, which of course is a major component to developing global climate models."

Harvard researchers have been sur prised that, as the average age of trees in the forest approaches 100 years, the amount of carbon taken up has increased. "We're still not sure what's driving that, but it was a surprise and indicated why you need to be doing a lot of these studies over a really long time frame," said O'Keefe.

At the small parcel in New Hampshire, Harvard researchers are still watching the forest recover from the Hurricane of 1938. Rough topography makes the Winchester parcel hard to reach, so the trees knocked down by the hurricane were never salvaged and the area has been practically undisturbed by people for 70 years, O'Keefe said.

The land originally had "a magnificent pine-hemlock stand" when the university acquired it in the 1920s as a place to study old-growth forest, he said. "It was basically flattened in the hurricane. But if you go up and walk around today, those big pines blown over in '38 are only just beginning to decompose."

About 35 miles to the east, in Shrewsbury, university students and the public rummage through objects gathered over two centuries by the family of Artemas Ward, first commander-in-chief of the American Revolution. Several members of the Ward family, including the general, were Harvard graduates, and early last century his great-grandson left the Ward homestead to the university to be preserved as a museum.

Paula Lupton, curator of the General Artemas Ward House Museum, said Harvard maintains the site for education and historical research. "But when I say research, I don't mean that people come and sit here hour after hour," she said. "It tends to act as an inspiration. Students come in, find an object that speaks to them, and then go off and do research on it."

The house was built around 1727, and members of the Ward family lived at the homestead for some 200 years. "The house reflects an 18th-century home, a 19th-century farm, and the beginnings and makings of a 20th-century museum," Lupton said. "The collection represents everyday objects spanning those 200 years. They sort of tell you what the family was involved in at the time."

For example, a student once became interested in a patchwork quilt. "It turned out it was made by General Ward's granddaughter," said Lupton. "It opened up this whole door of research into the transient life for a young widow in the late 19th century and her connections to her extended family network."

Another student examining a toolbox found a decorated bone that proved to be from a bison. "It had been used by Native Americans as a handle for a riding whip. What was it doing in the Ward House in Shrewsbury? It opened up the whole family connection to the development of Ohio and their travel around the Midwest in the 1800s."

The museum is open to the public on limited hours, April to November. The last family member to live in the house died in 1909, the year electric service first came to Shrewsbury, said Lupton. "So most of the museum has no electricity. If you come in on a dark rainy day, it's dark."

At Harvard's Concord Field Station, researchers are studying animals to develop better robots. The research center is headquartered on a 79-acre parcel in Bedford, and includes more than 600 acres of the Estabrook Woods in Concord, which the university holds in a joint conservation trust with the town, said Andrew Biewener, the Concord Field Station's director.

Researchers at the facility have animals, such as goats, dogs, and guinea fowl, a bird native to Africa, run on treadmills to study how they move, he said.

"What we learn from these studies we share with engineering colleagues trying to design more robust and effective legged robots - robots that move with legs," he said. "Evolution has resulted in pretty sophisticated designs on performance. Animals are well adapted to move and run over rough terrain and to be stable when they do so, and that's terrain you couldn't take a wheeled vehicle through.

"I think this research will also lead to the development of smart prostheses," Biewener said, such as "an ankle joint and foot that better mimic the actual properties of a human foot."

Researchers at the field station have also used high-speed cameras in a wind tunnel to learn how birds are both maneuverable and stable in flight, he said.

The university also owns about 37 acres in the town of Harvard, the site of an observatory run by the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. The Harvard University Library has a climate-controlled storage facility in Southborough. And there's also the New England Primate Research Center in Marlborough, a campus of Harvard Medical School, where areas of study include treating AIDS, cancer, drug addiction, and Parkinson's disease.

In Weston, the university has a pending deal to sell the Case Estates property to the town. Local officials are reviewing Harvard's plans to clean up arsenic-tainted soil on the land as part of a 2006 agreement to buy the 62 acres for $22.5 million.