Our Ecologically Rich Region

The University of the Wild sits in the middle of a beautiful, rural region of central Massachusetts. To the south are the massive, 18-mile-long Quabbin Reservoir and its surrounding wilderness. To the north are forests and lakes, rolling farmland, and small New England villages.


Petersham is a picture-postcard New England village with white, steepled churches and a country store on the town common. Gate 40 of the Quabbin Reservoir is just south of the village. A hiking trail leads to the tip of the reservoir and the remains of several buildings of the town of Dana – the rest of the town is underwater. The famed Harvard Forest is just three miles from the University of the Wild. Petersham, and much of central Massachusetts, is on the ancestral land of the Nipmuc Tribe and Nipmuk Cultural Preservation land abuts the University of the Wild.

Harvard Forest

Harvard Forest, a department of Harvard University, is a world-renowned ecology research facility of 3850 acres in Petersham. It is one of North America’s oldest managed forests and includes educational and research facilities, a museum, and miles of trails. Benton MacKaye, the co-founder of the Wilderness Society and founder of the Appalachian Trail, taught at Harvard Forest in the early twentieth century.

Quabbin Reservoir

From 1927 to 1941, the state flooded the Swift River Valley to create a huge reservoir. The reservoir is one of the largest unfiltered water supplies in the United States and the primary water supply for Boston, 65 miles to the east. The surrounding forest is now an equally huge wilderness.

“Relatively free from human disturbance, this sizable area of protected land with a diversity of habitats has resulted in varied and abundant wildlife communities. Wild turkey and white-tailed deer are common, along with smaller species of rodents and birds, which provide food for fox, bobcat, coyote and hawks. More uncommon wildlife, such as bald eagles, common loons, bear and moose are also found at Quabbin…” Quabbin Park and Reservation brochure, Department of Conservation and Recreation.

Massachusetts Audubon Society

Several Mass Audubon sanctuaries are located within a short drive of UofWild, and one of them is in Petersham.

Rutland Brook Wildlife Sanctuary

The 1,500-plus-acre Rutland Brook Wildlife Sanctuary of Mass Audubon is adjacent to the Swift River Reservation of the Trustees of Reservations, both part of one the most extensive areas of uninterrupted protected land in central Massachusetts.

The Trustees of Reservations

The Trustees of Reservations is a Massachusetts nonprofit that protects and stewards over 100 places of ecological, scenic, and historic importance throughout the state. Their biodiverse protected land highlights iconic landscapes, agricultural heritage, horticultural spaces, and other ecologically important areas. Three of their properties are in Petersham.

Brooks Woodland Preserve

Stone walls, abandoned farm roads, and other remnants of old farmsteads weave through the 700-acre quiet forests of towering red oaks, hemlocks, and white pine. Trails follow the Swift River and small brooks, skirting beaver dams and beaver-built wetlands. The Roaring Brook Tract of the preserve is just a short walk from campus.

Swift River Reservation

Three beautiful tracts of land totaling over 400 acres and connected by the East Branch of the Swift River make up this reservation. The river attracts a large number of wildlife species and is one of the most scenic trout streams in the state. Seven miles of trails follow the river, which is the largest tributary of the massive Quabbin Reservoir.

North Common Meadow

Close to the village center, the 25 acres of meadows sport wildflowers, a working hayfield, and a lily pond. The half-mile trail connects with the Buell Woods Trail (through property owned by the family of UofWild founder Larry Buell) which leads to the Brooks Woodland Preserve.

Good or Bad?

The Quabbin Reservoir and Park is a 40 square mile wilderness in the middle of Massachusetts. The largest body of water in Massachusetts and the sixth largest in New England, the reservoir itself is the main water supply for Boston. The surrounding 100,000 acres of forest are open seasonally for hiking and fishing. Often called the “accidental wilderness”, Quabbin is a unique bioregion with its 18-mile-long lake, 600 islands, 181 miles of shoreline (including the islands), and surrounding wilderness forest. It is home to an incredibly diverse amount of wildlife, some of which – like loons and eagles – are not common in other parts of the state.

It is also the largest single man-made object in New England.


To make the reservoir, 2500 people in four towns along the Swift River, along with their homes, animals, memories, and cemeteries, were forced out of their beautiful valley. Their homes, businesses, and churches were taken apart and moved to other locations (or burned), and 7600 graves were moved to a new cemetery. The last residents left forever in 1938 and the reservoir began to fill a few months later.

Today, over 80 years later, the Quabbin area is a unique and valuable wild ecosystem and provides much-needed drinking water for Boston. A few cellar holes and foundations around the town common of Dana, the highest of the drowned towns, are the only visible signs of the reservoir’s past human occupation. Old Route 21, still paved, dips into the water at the edge of the reservoir in Dana and emerges from the water again 18 miles south, near Belchertown.

Although wild and “natural” now, the fact is that, ecologically speaking, it is an ecosystem built by humans. For thousands of years, the indigenous Nipmuk people were the stewards of the Swift River and it’s valley. European settlers moved onto the land in the early 1700’s and quickly began clearing forests, setting up farms, houses, and businesses with roads, railroads, and mills along the river. A mere two hundred years later, in the late 1920’s, the valley was massively altered again – by humans.

The reservoir project did not restore the valley to the way it was for thousands of years; it simply changed it from one man-made environment to another.

Was it ethically right to eject 2500 people from their homes in order for city dwellers 65 miles away to have water? It was certainly sad. Was the tradeoff of a beautiful and valuable wilderness worth it? Dana, Enfield, Greenwich, and Prescott have not been the only towns to be flooded in order to make a reservoir. New York has flooded 17 towns, California 8, Pennsylvania 5, with more in a  handful of other states. Nor will they be the last. The growing human population needs reliable water sources. Are there better ways to provide water to cities? Is creating reservoirs with surrounding wilderness still overall a good idea? What about the value of the downstream river systems forever altered?

University of the Wild students will ponder these issues while standing on old Rt. 21 as it slips into the reservoir, weighing and balancing what used to be along Rt. 21 for the next 18 miles – 100 years ago and 1000 years ago – with the value of the beautiful wilderness right before their eyes today.


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