It took Roger Leighton decades to piece together 400-plus acres of forest in Strafford and Barrington, but his persistence paid off this month with the sale of the Leighton Forest to Southeast Land Trust.
“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,” SELT officials said in a news release. “Prior to that he worked for New Hampshire Fish and Game, focusing on deer management.”
Leighton applied his lifetime of forestry know-how to manage the forest and turn it into a prime woodlot and wildlife habitat, according to SELT.
“Dad was a forester and a biologist,” said 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.”
Roger Leighton died in 2016 at the age of 97. In 2019, the Leighton children began working with SELT to explore conserving the forest. It was their desire to see their parents’ legacy protected instead of being developed.
The purchase of the $1,369,000 parcel was completed July 1 with $110,000 from the Strafford Conservation Commission.
“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.
Roger Leighton’s daughter, Abby Aucella, lives adjacent to the family land.
“It was his passion and it was his love,” she said of her father’s love for the forest. “For anyone that understands woodlands, he manicured it. And he never admitted it, but I’m pretty sure he named his trees.”
She added: “Even though my dad didn’t live to see it happen, he would have wanted it preserved. He knew the value of that land.”
The wetlands and productive vernal pools that provide breeding grounds for numerous amphibians led to the state’s Department of Environmental Services Aquatic Resource Mitigation Program ranking the Leighton forest their highest-scoring project in 2020.
“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,” Duane Hyde, SELT’s Land conservation director, said in a statement.
“We are excited and honored to carry on Roger Leighton’s legacy of exceptional management for another 100 years and beyond.”
SELT is a member-supported nonprofit land trust that conserves land in southeastern New Hampshire.
The fundraising campaign for the purchase garnered more than 100 private donations and marshalled many organizations in support of its conservation, according to SELT. The Ducks Unlimited Friends of New Hampshire contributed by identifying the prime waterfowl and migratory bird habitat of Leighton Forest.
Barrington’s Conservation Commission also supported the project. along with the competitive statewide funding program, the Land and Community Heritage Investment Program (LCHIP). Additional funding for the project came from the Moose Plate program and the Great Bay Resource Protection Partnership.