Sunshine, Sweat, and Tears

The immeasurable value of heritage and land

family land
Forest Service researcher John Schelhas talks with a landowner about family land in coastal South Carolina. Photo by Sarah Hitchner.

The U.S. Endowment for Forestry and Communities, in partnership with the U.S. Forest Service and the Natural Resources Conservation Service launched a six-year program in 2012 to test the potential of sustainable forestry practices to help stabilize African-American land ownership, increase forest health, and build economic assets in the southern Black Belt.

The Sustainable Forestry and African American Land Retention Program is a comprehensive effort to address the long-standing problem of under-participation of African Americans in forest management.

People in the South own forests for many reasons, including aesthetics, wildlife, recreation, income and investment, and timber production. “The pilot projects were designed to build and coordinate systems of support for African-American landowners,” Schelhas said.

In a recent SRS General Technical Report, SRS research forester John Schelhas and his colleagues describe the results of a baseline research project that took place in Alabama, North Carolina and South Carolina. The program began with 30-month pilot projects initiated with partner organizations working in three multi-county regions:

  • Roanoke Rural Electric Cooperative and partners in northeastern North Carolina
  • Center for Heirs’ Property Preservation and partners in five coastal counties of South Carolina
  • Limited Resource Landowner Education and Assistance Network and the Federation of Southern Cooperatives in the Black Belt of west-central Alabama.
family history and land
Historic family houses where their ancestors once lived increase the importance of land to current landowners. Photo by John Schelhas.

“The report is designed to enhance our understanding of minority land ownership and forest management by presenting their stories in their own words,” Schelhas explained.

“The main goal of each 30-month pilot program was to move at least 20 African-American forest landowners per pilot project to a position of secure ownership and high probability of profitable and long-term forest management.”

Through personal interviews, the project revealed that:

  • African-American landowners interviewed valued land highly for its connections to earlier generations, and were nearly unanimous in wanting future generations to retain their land.
  • Limited experience with forestry in the African-American community along with a history of inequities and distrust create a challenging situation.
  • Sustainable forest management can facilitate land retention, but landowners often require time and assistance to engage family members, consider options, and resolve ownership issues.
  • Many African Americans are managing land that has been in their family for many years, and the heritage value of this land is immeasurable.
  • While nearly all landowners want to keep the land in their family for generations to come, few are earning any returns from their land.
African American landowners often ended up with marginal land for agriculture, such as this wetland, but these lands now have both ecological and monetary value. Photo by John Schelhas.

Resolving heirs’ property issues can encourage landowners to adopt sustainable forest management; at the same time, potential sustainable forest management income can provide an incentive to families needing to resolve heirs’ property.

The Sustainable Forestry and African American Land Retention Program is addressing these issues in an integrated fashion and shows how programs of this nature can simultaneously redress past inequities for African-American landowners, ensure future timber supplies in states where forestry is one of the major economic activities, and protect watersheds and wildlife habitat.

Read the full text of the GTR.

For more information, email John Schelhas at

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