BARRINGTON - A local treasure this week was saved for generations to come. The 1,500-acre Stonehouse Forest is now owned by the Southeast Land Trust of New Hampshire and subject to conservation restrictions held by the NH Fish and Game Department and the Town of Barrington.
This undeveloped area of forests, ponds, and wetlands is adjacent to the popular Stonehouse Pond conservation area and provides significant benefits for wildlife, outdoor recreation, and water quality. The Stonehouse Forest campaign was a joint venture of the Town of Barrington, New Hampshire Fish and Game Department, New Hampshire Land and Community Heritage Investment Program (LCHIP), the Open Space Institute (OSI), and the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS).
"Saving Stonehouse Forest for all was a true partnership," notes Brian Hart, Executive Director of land trust. "From the start, Barrington residents and leaders, as well as state and federal officials, all saw the importance of this land and its treasure trove of natural resource values. We're grateful for their commitments that made the conservation of Stonehouse Forest possible."
As the largest conservation project completed by the trust, the 1,500 acres also represent one of the largest undeveloped open spaces in the area and support common and rare wildlife such as bobcats, numerous migratory bird species, and moose. The land's natural ponds, numerous wetlands, and streams are the genesis of clean water which eventually flows into Great Bay via the Lamprey River (designated a Wild and Scenic waterway) and the Bellamy River.
"Opportunities to conserve a parcel of this size, with such a wide range of diverse wildlife habitats so close to Great Bay, are rare indeed. We're glad to be a part of it," said NH Fish and Game Executive Director Glenn Normandeau.
The more than 50 separate parcels that make up Stonehouse Forest were acquired over decades by a European investor who planned to create an exclusive exotic game hunting reserve. The owner abandoned this plan, and in 2015 offered SELT the chance to purchase the land for conservation. Over the past two years, SELT has been working to raise the nearly $3.5 million in funds necessary to permanently protect and steward this land in perpetuity.
Early in the effort, the Barrington Conservation Commission and Board of Selectmen jointly committed $450,000 in town funds from the Conservation Fund and the Open Space Bond Fund. These funds demonstrated strong local support to state and federal officials and encouraged private giving as well.
"The conservation of Stonehouse Forest doesn't only benefit the myriad plant and wildlife species that call it home, but will be a fabulous recreational resource for the townspeople for generations to come," explained John Wallace, Chair of the Barrington Conservation Commission.
Funding from state and federal sources topped $2 million. Recognizing its significance for wetlands, wildlife, and water quality, Fish and Game provided $750,000 in funds from the Wildlife Restoration Program and secured $1 million through the US Fish and Wildlife Service's National Coastal Wetlands Conservation Program.
The NH Land and Community Heritage Investment Program provided a $420,000 grant, one of its largest ever, while the NH Conservation License Plate (Moose Plate) program through the NH State Conservation Committee provided $20,000.
The private nonprofit Open Space Institute provided a $400,000 grant through its Resilient Landscapes Initiative because the land has specific natural features identified as highly resilient in the context of climate change.
"It's rare to have an opportunity to conserve a property of this scale in southeastern New Hampshire, where population and development pressures are high," said Jennifer Melville, OSI's Vice President of Conservation Grants and Loans. "And the combination of large acreage and connectivity to other conservation land makes this project especially valuable for climate resiliency in the state and wider region." OSI's Resilient Landscapes Initiative is made possible with funding by the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation.
More than 425 donors have made donations toward this project, including significant gifts from the Phyllis Brill Wingrat Charitable Remainder Annuity Trust, the Society for the Protection of NH Forests, and the Lewis Family Conservation Foundation. With the acquisition of the Stonehouse Forest, SELT had about $27,000 remaining to be raised to support the long-term ownership and management costs of the property. Donors interested in making a gift to support the stewardship of the Stonehouse Forest can visit www.seltnh.org.
The Stonehouse Forest has been posted "no trespassing" for many years now, but now that the land is conserved, the network of trails within the forest will offer public recreation opportunities including hiking, cross country skiing, snowshoeing, and hunting. The "no trespassing" signs will be removed and over the next year, SELT and its partners will develop a wildlife and trail management plan for the property.
"Our hope is to have a formal trail system in place by early 2019, with kiosks and well-marked trails, so the public can enjoy this amazing, beautiful property," explained Hart.
A public celebration and tour is being planned for 2018 with updates posted at www.seltnh.org.