EXETER - On July 1, the Southeast Land Trust (SELT) completed the purchase and conservation of the Leighton Forest, which straddles the towns of Strafford and Barrington, NH, and bears the surname of a family that traces its roots to the founding of Barrington. Roger and Justine Leighton are instantly recognizable names in the Strafford/Barrington region, both of whom had deep ties to their community.
Roger was a walking repository of knowledge, a man known to have a steel-trap memory and an encyclopedic knowledge of forestry. He was one of the original county foresters, starting his career right after World War II and serving as the county forester for Belknap and Strafford Counties. Prior to that, he worked for New Hampshire Fish and Game, focusing on deer management.
Over the course of decades, he would piece lands together when they became available, slowly building up what would eventually become the sprawling, 400+ acre Leighton Forest. Roger would then apply his lifetime of forestry know-how to properly manage the forest and turn it into a prime woodlot and wildlife habitat.
“Dad was a forester and a biologist,” says Steve Leighton, Roger and Justine Leighton’s son and one of their four children. “He knew there had to be places left untouched for wildlife and to grow timber. He loved to walk through the forest. He was always thrilled to see his deer.”
“It was his passion and it was his love,” says daughter Abby Aucella who lives adjacent to the family land. “For anyone that understands woodlands, he manicured it. And he never admitted it, but I’m pretty sure he named his trees.”
Roger passed away in 2016 at the age of 97. He had not made a commitment to the destiny of Leighton Forest, opting instead to leave that decision to his family. In 2019, the Leighton children began working with SELT to explore plans for conserving the forest. It was their desire to see their parent’s legacy protected forever instead of being developed.
“Leighton Forest is a remarkable property and is a place that the more you explore the more you appreciate the diversity it has to offer and the care and respect the Leighton family took during their ownership,” said Duane Hyde, SELT’s Land Conservation Director. “We are excited and honored to carry on Roger Leighton’s legacy of exceptional management for another 100 years and beyond.”
“Even though my dad didn’t live to see it happen, he would have wanted it preserved,” Abby says. “He knew the value of that land.”
It is a land so rich in resources, the fundraising campaign brought over 100 private donations and marshaled many organizations in support of its conservation. The Ducks Unlimited Friends of New Hampshire offered generous support, as they identified the prime waterfowl and migratory bird habitat of Leighton Forest. The wetlands and productive vernal pools that provide breeding grounds for numerous amphibians led the NH Department of Environmental Services Aquatic Resource Mitigation Program to rank this their highest-scoring project in 2020. And the vast number of natural resources that will benefit the larger community for hunting, fishing, and recreation along with active forest management compelled both Strafford’s and Barrington’s Conservation Commissions to support the project. along with the competitive statewide funding program, the Land and Community Heritage Investment Program (LCHIP).
“It's a relief to have closed on a remarkably sizable parcel of land of diverse habitat and potential connectivity during a head-spinning wave of rapid development,” said Scott Young, Chair of the Strafford Conservation Commission.
SELT’s stewardship plans for Leighton Forest include public access with a parking area and kiosk, and ongoing land and forest management practices that protect and benefit wildlife and the wetlands in Leighton Forest.
Additional funding for the project came from the Moose Plate program and the Great Bay Resource Protection Partnership.