Black Belt Forestry

Improving land retention and access to forest management for African American forest landowners

by Zoё Hoyle, SRS Science Communications
Forest Service researcher John Schelhas and landowner Eleanor Cooper Brown discuss her family's forest land. Photo by U.S. Forest Service.

Forest Service researcher John Schelhas and landowner Eleanor Cooper Brown discuss her family’s forest land. Photo by U.S. Forest Service.

After the Civil War, former African American slaves were deeded or bought property across the South, but in subsequent years often lacked the money for — or were denied access to – the legal resources needed to establish title to the land. As a result, much of this land was passed down through following generations without title and is now “heirs’ property,” which means it’s held in common by all heirs, regardless of whether they live on the land or pay taxes.

Over the past century, African-American rural landholdings in the South have declined rapidly, dropping from a peak of about 15 million acres in 1910 to less than 2 million today. The causes are multiple: outmigration, voluntary sales, foreclosures, and lack of access to credit and capital — as well as outright exploitation of the instability of heirs’ property ownership. Much of this land is forested, but lack of clear title has limited landowners’ access to federal and state forest management incentives and services.

U.S. Forest Service scientists recently published results from interviews with African American landowners that provide important baseline information for new efforts to improve African American land retention and forest management. The interviews revealed a deep connection to the land and the importance of family land ownership across generations — as well as knowledge of the title issues that have limited participation in forest management.

Led by John Schelhas, research forester with the Forest Service Southern Research Station (SRS) Integrating Human and Natural Systems unit, the interview studies are part of an integrated research and outreach effort included in three pilot projects started in different areas of the South by the Sustainable Forestry and African American Land Retention Program, whose purpose is to help stabilize African-American land ownership across the Black Belt region of the South by preventing and solving problems of insecure land ownership caused by heirs’ property.

The program, a partnership of the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Endowment for Forestry and Communities, also focuses on increasing forest health and economic viability by connecting African American landowners to organized networks of forestry support as well as federal and state programs.

“Concerns about the participation of African American landowners in forest management have been voiced for over three decades,” said Schelhas. “Recent research in the pilot project areas found that African American forest owners reported high levels of distrust of government agency staff, issues of heirs’ property and land loss, and limited engagement with forestry professionals.”

The scientists formed an interdisciplinary social science team that interviewed 20 family landowners in each of the pilot program states – North Carolina, South Carolina, and Alabama – using rapid appraisal techniques originally developed to gain a broad understanding of complex social and agricultural systems in a short time to support project development. The 20 landowners in each state were evenly distributed between core participants in the pilot projects and non-participants.

“The social science team – itself diverse in terms of race, gender, and age – conducted lengthy interviews with each of the landowning families,” said Schelhas. “A forester also visited each property to conduct a rapid assessment of forest conditions.”

Nearly two-thirds of the primary family members interviewed were between 51 and 70 years old and tended to be highly educated, with nearly 60 percent holding advanced college degrees compared to 23 percent of all forest landowners across the South. Acres of land owned were small, but appropriate for forestry, with the majority of holdings falling between 21 and 100 acres. About 40 percent of African American landowners interviewed for the study faced heirs’ property issues on some or all of their land.

“The difficulties of managing forest land held as heirs’ property was widely acknowledged,” said Schelhas. “Heirs’ property makes timber sales difficult, and participation in government assistance programs has typically not been possible.”

Most landowners interviewed had very limited experience with forestry, with only 12 percent having a written forest management plan and only 15 percent having participated in any government assistance program before taking part in the pilot program. For many owners, the Sustainable Forestry and African American Land Retention Program was their first opportunity to become involved in forestry, and the program was seen as key to involving the larger African American community with the land and retaining forestland for future generations.

“Each of the pilot projects was led by a community-based organization that can provide landowners with legal assistance for resolving heirs’ property or other ownership issues,” said Schelhas. “By providing an integrated program of assistance involving private and government partners – and more importantly, by building relationships within the communities – the pilot projects have helped landowners get the information and services they need to make the changes over time that will lead to better economic returns from their land and more forestland retained across the southern region.”

Read the full text of the article.

The Sustainable Forestry and African American Land Retention Program is jointly supported by the Forest Service, the U.S. Endowment for Forestry and Communities, and the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service.

Read more about the pilot projects of the Sustainable Forestry and African American Land Retention Program in the February 2016 issue of Leaves of Change, the bulletin of the SRS Centers for Urban and Interface Forestry.

For more information, email John Schelhas at jschelhas@fs.fed.us.

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Posted in Economics & Policy, Ethics & Values, Forest Landowners, Integrating Human & Natural Systems

Here Today or Here to Stay?

ForWarn monitors seasonal duration of forest disturbance impacts

by Stephanie Worley Firley
A traditional weekly ForWarn map image (left) shows the magnitude of damage from the 2015 gypsy moth outbreak in Pennsylvania based on percent changes in vegetation greenness. A 12-week Seasonal Duration map (right) shows duration of the disturbance based on the number of weekly monitoring periods in which a loss of vegetation greenness exceeded 3% during the 2015 growing season. Both maps compare vegetation greenness to that of the previous year.

A traditional weekly ForWarn map image (left) shows the magnitude of damage from the 2015 gypsy moth outbreak in Pennsylvania based on percent changes in vegetation greenness. A 12-week Seasonal Duration map (right) shows duration of the disturbance based on the number of weekly monitoring periods in which a loss of vegetation greenness exceeded 3% during the 2015 growing season. Both maps compare vegetation greenness to that of the previous year.

Some disturbances come and go, leaving forests no worse for the wear.

Hailstorms, insect defoliations, and light prescribed fires, for example, commonly occur early in the growing season, but, because of the timing and nature of these disturbances, trees and other vegetation may quickly regrow leaves after the damage is done. In such cases, even the most extreme damage diminishes by mid-summer.

Other times, disturbance damage causes longer lasting effects on forests when dieback or mortality results.

When viewed from above with coarse resolution remote sensing, such as with satellite imagery or aerial surveys, canopy impacts can appear similar whether disturbance damage is fleeting or more enduring. How can managers gauge the true impacts of forest disturbance on forest growth and productivity?

U.S. Forest Service Eastern Forest Environmental Threat Assessment Center researchers behind the satellite-based ForWarn tool have developed new Seasonal Duration map products that distinguish short-lived disturbances from lasting disturbances.

While traditional ForWarn maps are generated each week year-round to show how much vegetation greenness may have changed compared to expected conditions for a given location and day of year, seasonal disturbance impacts and recovery cannot be judged by one snapshot in space and time.

Seasonal Duration maps are generated every six weeks during the growing season and can complement weekly ForWarn maps to provide a more complete picture of the extent of the growing season impacted by disturbance.

ForWarn‘s Seasonal Duration products record the count of weekly monitoring periods that fell below a three percent drop in vegetation greenness compared to the prior year,” explains Bill Hargrove, Eastern Threat Center research ecologist and lead ForWarn researcher. “These maps provide a simple way to identify areas that have experienced long lasting change that are easily overlooked due to the low magnitude of the disturbance or persistent cloud cover during the growing season.”

Though the Seasonal Duration maps are a new innovation developed this year, they are now available for each growing season going back to 2006. ForWarn researchers plan to produce Seasonal Duration maps three times during each growing season, a frequency that can assist users with annual reporting activities.

The Seasonal Duration map products have recently been particularly useful for tracking the duration of gypsy moth damage in the northeastern Unites States — disturbance that has captured the attention of land managers, homeowners, outdoor enthusiasts, and plenty of media. Efforts to assess the impacts of the 2015 gypsy moth defoliation event spanning parts of Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and New York and the 2016 event that affected Massachusetts and nearly the entire state of Rhode Island are summarized on the ForWarn website.

“Based on the lasting duration of declines in canopy greenness across a large part of the state, 2016’s gypsy moth defoliation event in southern New England was particularly severe,” says Eastern Threat Center research ecologist and ForWarn researcher Steve Norman.

The next ForWarn Seasonal Duration map will be available shortly after the last day of summer (September 21) as the 2016 growing season winds down across much of the eastern United States, and researchers look forward to the insight these new map products can provide in the future.

“For some critical measures, such as annual growth or productivity, the magnitude of change in vegetation greenness for a given day or period may not be particularly telling. Changes in forest health are best contextualized by a multi-period or seasonal perspective. ForWarn’s calculation of seasonal duration of disturbance impacts can provide that context and serve as a unique new measure for forest monitoring,” says Norman.

For more information, email Steve Norman at stevenorman@fs.fed.us.

Access the latest publications by SRS scientists.

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Posted in Insects and Diseases, Threats

Forest Health Research and Education Center Shares $3 Million NSF Grant

U.S. Forest Service part of effort to improve cyberinfrastructure for tree resources

by Zoё Hoyle, SRS Science Communications
View from the Blue Ridge Parkway just south of Asheville, NC. Photo by Fran Trudeau, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

View from the Blue Ridge Parkway just south of Asheville, NC. Photo by Fran Trudeau, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

The Forest Health Research and Education Center (Forest Health Center), a collaborative project among the Forest Service Southern Research Station (SRS), the University of Kentucky, and the Kentucky Division of Forestry, will share a $3 million grant from the National Science Foundation with researchers from Washington State University (serving as lead), the University of Tennessee, and the University of Connecticut.

The funded project will establish a network and cyberinfrastructure for sharing comprehensive tree health and genetic data among scientists and the public. The grant will help researchers continue work on a user-friendly web-based interface using Tripal, a flexible program that scientists, tree breeders, and the public can use to more easily access information about trees, tree genetics, sequences of tree genomes, and other information that’s archived in specialized tree breeding and research databases.

The grant also supports promoting education and outreach programs towards conservation efforts and involving the public in monitoring forest health. The Forest Health Center will play a primary role in this aspect, presenting workshops for woodland owners, private industry, and state agencies.

“It’s more and more important to involve the public in monitoring our forests for insects, diseases, and invasive species,” says Dana Nelson, SRS research geneticist and Forest Health Center co-director. “This not only helps us to identify and track problems but provides people with new reasons and ways to learn about the forests around them.”

This fits well with the mission of the Lexington, Kentucky-based Forest Health Center to advance the conservation of forested ecosystems by integrating genetics-based biological research with social science and education on the factors that affect tree health and forest restoration.

“Part of our education and outreach efforts at the Forest Health Center are focused on promoting the understanding of forest health threats in relation to the genetics of resistance and the use of new genetic tools for improving resistance,” says Nelson. “The grant will help us better convey our findings to those who can use them to help improve forest health using genetics-based tools and knowledge.”

For more information, email Dana Nelson at dananelson@fs.fed.us.

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Posted in Genetics, Insects and Diseases, Threats
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