New insight on the challenges and opportunities facing African American family forest owners in the Southeast was just published by U.S. Forest Service scientists in Small Scale Forestry.
SRS research forester John Schelhas, SRS research social scientist Cassandra Johnson Gaither, and University of Georgia assistant research scientist Sarah Hitchner summarized interviews with 60 minority landowners in Alabama, North Carolina, and South Carolina.
The interviews were part of a pilot project supported by the U.S. Endowment for Forestry and Communities and led by community-based organizations like Center for Heirs’ Property Preservation, Roanoke Electric Cooperative, Limited Resource Landowner Education and Assistance Network, and the Federation of Southern Cooperatives.
The community-based projects aimed to maintain African Americans’ land ownership in the identified regions and increase the economic value of family lands by improving access to sustainable forest management activities that promote forest health and generate income from timber or non-timber forest products.
For the research, community-based project foresters interviewed landowners who represented a range of demographics (age, gender, occupation, income) and forest management experience. Schelhas and colleagues summarized the interview data to better understand the landowners’ values and views on forestland ownership and management.
Most forestland parcels were between 20 and 100 acres and were not actively managed. Forests were often densely stocked, with no signs of thinning or prescribed burning. Timber sales were infrequent and often underpaid.
Few landowners had written forest management plans. Many were unfamiliar with or had never received services from existing government assistance programs.
Most interviewees had inherited their land, and it was common for them to describe their forest lands as “woods.” Family members had long histories of spending time together on the land, both working fields and enjoying forests. These experiences fostered sentimental attachment to the family property—a key reason why nearly all want to keep their lands for future generations.
Land inheritance was frequently complicated because the forests were considered heirs’ property, meaning that multiple heirs share ownership without a written will or clear title. About half of the interviewees had title issues related to heirs’ property. Some families lacked a common definition of heirs’ property or did not understand how it may restrict forest management or lead to land loss.
About half of interviewees had begun the legal process of obtaining a clear title to their forestlands. Education about the process was critical, along with legal assistance from the community-based projects. Historically, some landowning families have been reluctant to initiate the process due to fear of family conflicts and general distrust of the legal system.
The scientists found that clear titles increase participation in government assistance programs for landowners and simplify forest management decisions. Afterward, families can decide to maintain shared management through trusts, LLCs, or other co-ownership agreements, or divide the land and manage the parcels together or individually. Larger parcels are easier to manage for sustainable forestry, making joint ownership or management the preferred outcome.
“Our research shows that the potential earnings from forest management activities after obtaining clear title is a great motivator for family cooperation,” states Schelhas. “There’s real synergy between resolving heirs’ property issues and practicing sustainable forest management on family lands.”
Understanding landowner needs and values can help state and federal programs deliver useful information and services. The pilot projects have shown how to combine legal and forestry education to create a system of support for African American landowners—and that there are great benefits to working together, building relationships and wealth, and preserving rural forest landscapes across the Southeast.