Helping African American Rural Landowners Keep Family Forests

Forest Service researchers investigate heirs’ property issues

Center for Heirs' Property Preservation forester Sam Cook shows with young longleaf pine stand on family forestland in South Carolina. Photo by Sarah Hitchner.
Center for Heirs’ Property Preservation forester Sam Cook in young longleaf pine stand on family forestland in South Carolina. Photo by Sarah Hitchner.

After the Civil War, African Americans were deeded or bought property across the South, but at that time they often lacked the money for — or were denied access to — legal resources. As a result, much of this land was passed down through the generations without the benefit of a written will or title and is now “heirs’ property,” which means it’s held in common by all heirs, whether they live on the land, pay taxes, or have never set foot on the land.

Over the past century, rural landholdings held by African Americans 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.

In places like South Carolina, where the once undesirable inner coastal land deeded to African Americans during Reconstruction is now prime real estate, lack of clear title can result in forced sales and the loss of home place for entire families — as well as the loss of coastal forests and the benefits they provide. Since there’s often no clear title to the land, heirs’ property creates obstacles to getting professional forestry services, procuring loans, and participating in conservation incentive programs offered by the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS).

Scientists from the U.S. Forest Service Southern Research Station (SRS) are interviewing rural African American landowners to investigate the complex social, economic, and environmental factors that shape the loss or retention of land held as heirs’ property. Led by John Schelhas and Cassandra Johnson Gaither from the SRS Integrating Human and Natural Systems unit, the baseline research that includes the interview studies is designed to inform the new initiatives of the Sustainable Forestry and African American Land Retention Program.

Jointly supported by the Forest Service, the U.S. Endowment for Forestry and Communities, and the NRCS, the program is currently funding three pilot projects in South Carolina, North Carolina and Alabama to help stabilize African American land ownership in the Black Belt region of the South by preventing and solving problems of insecure land ownership caused by heirs’ property. The program also focuses on increasing forest health and the economic viability of forested lands by connecting African American landowners to organized networks of forestry support, including federal and state programs.

The projects — in coastal South Carolina, northeastern North Carolina, and western Alabama — operate through specific trusted community-based organizations that sustain relationships of trust, assist and educate landowners, broker forestry services, and monitor landowner progress toward forest management.

Schelhas interviewed landowners in the pilot project areas in South Carolina, North Carolina, and Alabama, talking with them about how they value the land, their perspectives on land ownership, and perceptions about forest management and access to professional forestry assistance and incentive programs.

“Conversations  for the project have revealed that African American forest ownership is often centered more on the family than on economics,” said Schelhas. “The process of clearing up ownership issues, which involves tracking down heirs, is difficult for many families, but also well worth the effort, both as a way of connecting with family and a way to secure title for the land.”

Schelhas also found that African American landowners have a much different history of access to extension and professional forestry services than white landowners – and a much lower level of participation in federal assistance programs, even though there are special incentives for African American forest landowners.

A recently published study he conducted with University of Georgia researchers Puneet Dwivedi and Arundhati Jagadish showed that guidelines to existing federal landowner programs, especially requirements of clear title, do not match the needs of African American forest landowners, and that trust continues to be an issue in relation to federal programs.

“The results of the study suggest that existing federal landowner assistance programs should be linked to the concerns of African American forest landowners about ensuring regular income as an incentive for future generations to keep the land,” said Schelhas. “Programs must also address the key issues of lack of trust in government agencies, difficulty in meeting cost-share requirements, and the need to resolve legal issues associated with heirs’ property.”

Heirs’ property and successes from the pilot projects of the Sustainable Forestry and African American Land Retention Program are covered in much more detail 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 

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