In 2012, the USDA Forest Service and Natural Resources Conservation Service partnered with a number of nonprofit organizations to create an award-winning program to help landowners address heirs’ property, land retention, and natural resource justice issues.
The Sustainable Forestry and African American Land Retention Program (SFLR) has become a model for addressing issues faced by underserved landowners — including African Americans who have lost much of their land over the past 120 years.
Forest Service research fellow Sarah Butler and colleagues, research foresters John Schelhas and Brett J. Butler, revealed that minority landowners overall are only one-third as likely as nonminority owners to have participated in any forest management program. Their findings were published in the Journal of Forestry.
By listening to minority landowners and documenting their stories, the SFLR uncovered the keys to improving heirs’ property owners participation in forestry.
“The thing that was really innovative about SFLR is it brought heirs’ property and forestry issues together,” says Schelhas. “Families did not have the money to maintain or improve inherited forest land, and they had to pay tax on it — many were losing money. The SFLR connected them to forestry programs and information, and the prospect of forest income stimulated distant heirs’ attention.”
In helping to design SFLR, Schelhas used his experience coordinating the Alabama Consortium for Forestry Education and Research since 1999.
Consortium partners pioneered research to describe African American forest owners and learn about obstacles to participation in conservation programs. They also had developed and implemented a pilot series of forestry outreach workshops in communities around the South. “With SFLR, we continued in that role,” says Schelhas.
SFLR’s in-depth anthropological fieldwork and qualitative analysis made a key contribution by bringing landowners’ stories, perspectives, experiences, and interests to life in nuanced ways, as Schelhas wrote in Annals of Anthropological Practice.
“The research supported and gave legitimacy to what people were saying, and it’s getting the attention of the forestry community,” adds Schelhas.
The research also made an important contribution to the forestry and social science literature in the South, Schelhas says.
The results show that a combination of sharing, listening, and documenting stories empowers participants and centers community-based projects on the participants themselves, even as it draws broader attention to and support for them.
SLFR projects have engaged state forestry agencies and private foresters to teach landowners about forest management. They have connected landowners with technical and financial aid providers like the Natural Resources Conservation Service.
With decades of federal and local discrimination, government conservation programs that support family forestry have done a poor job of reaching African Americans. SFLR leaders encouraged USDA policy makers and personnel to change policies to address enduring obstacles.
Attention to the issue at USDA in Washington changed employee practices in the South. Schelhas says, “The research was used, and it gave legitimacy to change the way heirs’ property was handled.”
SFLR also contributed to changes in the law. The 2018 Farm Bill eased participation in some conservation assistance programs. It authorized the new Heirs’ Property Relending Program through which USDA is lending $67 million to help landowners resolve heirs’ land ownership and succession issues.
SFLR has moved beyond a pilot project to build long-term, interdisciplinary public-private collaborations to address short-term issues and long-lasting, complex problems in land ownership, forest management, outreach practice, and policy.
It has worked to stabilize African American land ownership and increase forest health. It boosted the financial value of Black-owned land by resolving ownership issues and increasing sustainable forest management.
For more information, contact John Schelhas at firstname.lastname@example.org.