African American Forest Landowners: Overcoming Obstacles

The study found that landowners with heirs’ property were able to implement forest management practices when legal assistance was combined with forestry outreach. Photo by Fritz Bielmeier.

African American landowners have had a historically difficult time becoming engaged in forestry due to a number of factors, including discrimination. Another factor is heirs’ property, which refers to land that has been passed down informally from generation to generation without a will. This often means that distant relatives co-own a piece of land, and all need to agree on decisions regarding it, which makes engaging in forestry difficult.

A study by USDA Forest Service research forester John Schelhas and University of Georgia collaborators Sarah Hitchner and Puneet Dwivedi took an in-depth look at strategies for success of African American landowners in forestry. Their findings were published in the Journal of Forestry.

The team examined the the Sustainable Forestry and African American Land Retention Program (SFLR). The program connects African American landowners interested in forestry with networks of forestry management support, including federal and state programs, as well as nonprofit and business organizations.

Out of the eight projects that the program has launched in the South, the scientists examined the three longest-running ones, based in North Carolina, South Carolina, and Alabama.

Inexperienced forest landowners may not know the value of their timber, which has allowed unscrupulous timber purchasers pay less for the wood than it’s worth. Photo by Aleksandar Radovanovic.

The basic approach was to interview a variety of people in the program to uncover common themes and patterns. “We talked to people involved on the ground about their recommendations for forest ownership,” explains Schelhas. “The primary focus was on success. We wanted to talk to landowners and foresters and try to speak to a full range of people involved in the program. We also wanted to talk to people who had problems in forestry.”

The interviews – 33 in total – were then analyzed for common themes, keywords, and phrases. From that, the scientists identified five main obstacles to successful forest management for African American landowners:

  1. Low levels of awareness about forest opportunities, benefits, and programs
  2. Ownership issues and heirs’ property
  3. Inexperience with forest management
  4. Low participation in financial assistance programs for forest landowners
  5. Low financial returns from timber harvesting, often unjustly so

Focusing on these five constraints, the scientists used the interview analysis to identify strategies needed for African American forest landowners to reach success. Ten key strategies for SFLR to use include:

  1. Initial contact
  2. Trust building
  3. Landowner meetings for information exchange
  4. Forest management plans
  5. Plans that take into account diverse objectives
  6. Landowner engagement with forestry professionals
  7. Forestry practice implementation
  8. Participation in landowner organizations
  9. Certification and easements
  10. Tax guidance

The ten steps to success were uncovered from the interviews, as opposed to from an initial hypothesis. “We used a grounded theory approach,” says Schelhas. “That means that we built the theories and main story out of what people said, rather than from some theoretical or analytical notion coming from us.”

Read the full text of the article.

 For more information, email John Schelhas at

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