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Compass July 2006
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Compass is a quarterly publication of the USDA Forest Service's Southern Research Station (SRS). As part of the Nation's largest forestry research organization -- USDA Forest Service Research and Development -- SRS serves 13 Southern States and beyond. The Station's 130 scienists work in more than 20 units located across the region at Federal laboratories, universites, and experimental forests.

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Issue 6

Private Landowners hold the Key

by Perdita Spriggs

The Lower Mississippi Alluvial Valley (LMAV) was once home to abundant bottomland hardwood forests. Today, little more than 5 million acres of bottomland hardwoods remain in patches ranging in size from a few acres to tens of thousands of acres.

Fortunately, times are changing, and with the help of afforestation programs, bottomland hardwood forest acreage is gradually increasing. Area landowners are a mix of white landowners whose holdings typically exceed 700 acres, and African-American owners whose holdings are often less than 200 acres. Ninety percent of the land in the LMAV is privately owned, and 70 percent of that is owned by people who do not live on their land. Regardless of who owns the land or where they live, these private landowners can now benefit from converting marginal cropland into new forest stands.

With this growing interest in afforestation, Federal and State agencies and conservation organizations are partnering to help ensure changing landowner needs are met. How effectively these agencies interact determines landowners’ perceptions of and active interest in programs that promote afforestation.

Two Federal programs in particular, the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) and the Wetlands Reserve Program (WRP), are providing landowners with incentives to convert cropland to forest vegetation. Both voluntary programs address water quality, soil erosion, enhanced wildlife habitat, and other related natural resource concerns.

Clearing Program Hurdles for Minority Landowners

Many landowners in the Lower Mississippi Valley perceive afforestation as a good way to profit from and restore marginal agricultural lands; however, entry into Federal programs can be challenging. According to the multiagency report Restoring the Delta, only one in every five landowners who sign up for WRP in Mississippi is accepted in the program, with similar numbers for Louisiana and Arkansas. Additionally, many are uncomfortable signing an easement with the Federal Government. This is especially true for African-Americans.

“Many of our African-American landowners are older, and because of past experiences, including land loss, they have a hard time trusting the government,” says Sandra Ford, minority outreach forester for the Mississippi Forestry Commission who works with private, nonindustrial landowners. “There are also a lot of programs, and many people just don’t understand the land obligations or the jargon that is used.” She notes that since 1998, African-Americans have taken a huge interest in CRP advantages. “They perceive afforestation as a good idea, but the programs are often cost prohibitive.” African-Americans often do not have the initial funding needed for site preparation.

Mississippi Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) Area Conservationist James Johnson adds that many minority landowners do not meet certain eligibility requirements. “Typically, we have less than 10 percent African-American participation in CRP.” Not being able to demonstrate a cropping history is one barrier that many African- Americans face. Absentee landowners— who often rent land for additional income or leave hard to manage lands idle—or those who have not planted in several years find themselves unable to participate. Actual participation depends solely on whether payments per acre are comparable to the opportunity cost of removing cropland from production. But CRP benefits are worth making several attempts to secure.

“We’ve been trying to enroll land for the last 3 years and were just accepted this year,” says Michigan resident Wilson Tate, who owns 24 acres in the Mississippi Delta, but had only 13 acres accepted into CRP. Tate’s son Lorin, who lives in Washington, DC, helps manage his family’s land in Mississippi and discovered CRP in a Farm Services Administration magazine. After weighing the benefits of various conservation programs, Tate decided on CRP because, “Small farmers can hardly make a living, and it’s very difficult to rent land and get enough to just pay the taxes.” His grandfather divided 500 acres among the family, and Tate hopes to encourage other family members to participate. “I would definitely consider leasing the land for hunting and fishing, and I believe future generations could benefit from putting the land in trees.”

Determining whether to keep the land in crops or trees is primarily driven by economics. According to Delta Wildlife Executive Director Trey Cooke, “Landowners base their decisions on the highest and best use. If afforestation is the best use per acre of land, then that’s what they will do. If they can make more money growing cotton, rice, or beans, then that’s what they will do.” Delta Wildlife is a nonprofit organization that contracts with NRCS to plant trees, primarily on WRP land in Mississippi. Their collaboration with the SRS Center for Bottomland Hardwoods Research on seedling issues, including quality and survival rates, enables Delta Wildlife to provide a better product to the landowner—and ultimately a better stand of timber.

Photo of a private landowner

For private landowners, deciding whether to keep their land in crops or plant trees is driven by economics. (photo by USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service)

John Phillips, a partner in Phillips Planting Company on the edge of the Mississippi Delta, believes that afforestation is “the best use of marginal agricultural land. We cleared land in the ‘50s, ‘60s, and ‘70s that never should have been cleared, and those lands just are not profitable to farm in today’s conditions.” Phillips, who has nearly 1,700 acres in a series of CRP contracts, plans to enroll more acreage at the end of the year. However, he emphasizes the importance of economically viable incentives associated with planting trees. “Not many landowners are in a position to wait 35 years for revenue,” he says, referring to the time needed for many timber stands to mature enough for profit. “Annual rental rates provide a cash flow that enables you to meet your obligations while you wait.”

Whether managing large or small tracts, landowners must weigh the benefits and challenges of afforestation before deciding the best option. The financial benefits of planting trees on former agricultural land are realized over the long term, though water quality and wildlife benefits may be seen sooner. The cost of conversion, which includes site preparation and tree planting, begins at about $100 per acre and is normally the biggest hurdle. Average rental rates in the LMAV are around $60 per acre.

Spreading the Word

Communication and education play important roles in encouraging landowners to participate in conservation programs. Agencies must work diligently to provide information materials, workshops, and demonstrations that respond to different landowner needs. White landowners normally feel comfortable visiting government offices for information, while African-Americans rely more on churches, community organizations, and word-of-mouth.

“Historically black universities play a huge role in conveying information to African-Americans,” says Sandra Ford with the Mississippi Forestry Commission. “Demonstrations and tours are also extremely important, because African-Americans want to see what’s working for others in their community.” Mississippi Valley State University, an historically black college, will host a hardwood demonstration for the upcoming planting season as a joint effort with the Mississippi Forestry Commission and the Center for Bottomland Hardwoods Research.

Overall, landowners seem receptive to afforestation, which hopefully will continue to move forward. Studies indicate that the potential for afforestation in the LMAV is estimated at 500,000 acres or more. “It is highly likely that a large majority of the least productive cropland will be converted to forests in the next 20 to 30 years, followed by some percentage of moderately productive lands,” says Trey Cooke with Delta Wildlife.

Photo of Experimental plot of cottonwoods at the Sharkey Research and Demonstration Site in Sharkey County, MS
Experimental plot of cottonwoods at the Sharkey Research and Demonstration Site in Sharkey County, MS
(Photo by Melissa Carlson)