Minority Landowners and Forestry

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Society of American Foresters                                                                               International Society of Tropical Foresters


Minority Landowners and Forestry

Shorna R. Broussard


The quality of life, economic health, and environmental quality of many communities across the United States are closely tied to forest resources. The majority of forests in the U.S. are in private ownership (63%), which poses significant challenges related to the sustainability of these lands due to issues such as changes in land ownership and tenure, lack of awareness of sustainable forest management practices, and lack of financial viability and skills needed to undertake proper forest management. This challenge is of no greater consequence than for African-American landowners, concentrated in the Southern United States, who are experiencing land loss rates as much as 30% greater than their Caucasian counterparts. Nationally, approximately 144,000 African-Americans own 1.9 million acres of forestland and that ownership is concentrated in the southern United States.

Challenges facing African-American forests and their owners are land loss, lack of information and awareness of government landowner assistance programs, distrust of government, and financial constraints related to management of their lands. This chapter will explore the importance of ownership, the characteristics of African-American forest owners, barriers faced, and recommendations for the future.

The Importance of Ownership

There is a significant relationship between forest ownership and social measures of well-being (Bliss et al. 1998) and benefits of land ownership accrue not only to individual landowners, but to communities as well (Raper, 1936; Pennick 1990; Bliss et al. 1998; Gilbert et al. 2001; Fraser et al. 2004). Beyond providing economic independence and stability for landowners, land ownership has relevance to both individuals’ communities because it can stimulate economic investment and also serves as a form of political and cultural power (Gilbert et al. 2001).

Owning land is linked to political strength and influence, personal pride, higher educational achievement of children, and an overall sense of well-being (Darling 1982; Beauford et al. 1984; Pennick 1990; Gilbert et al. 2001). In fact, Fraser et al. (2004) found that areas with higher concentrations of African-American landownership are more likely to have African-American populations with higher well-being, defined as high levels of educational attainment, employment, and income, with low levels of poverty. Land ownership also contributes to civic activities and political participation; landowners are often chosen as community leaders (Couto 1991) providing institutional leadership to churches, schools, businesses, and social organizations.

Landownership and African-American cultural identity are also linked (Gilbert et al., 2001). Some have even said that “forests are embedded in the souls of black folks.” (Leatherberry 1999, p.456). This stems from the complex and varied historical relationship between African-Americans and forests. During the time of slavery in the United States, forests were central to worship among Black slaves. Assembly was forbidden on plantations and forests were used as a temporary and sometimes permanent (for colonies of runaway slave) refugia (Leatherberry 1999). Thus forests played a significant role in the ability of blacks to assemble for religious and basic survival reasons during slavery.

However the relationship between Blacks and forests weakened during the 19th century. After slavery, forests took on negative connotations including associations with acts of violence and menial forest labor, such as pine tar collection or cutting pulpwood with a chainsaw and loading it on trucks by hand. Additionally, the Great Migration of southern blacks to the urban northern and western U.S. following World War II resulted in many blacks being separated from rural landscapes. The Great Migration, one of the largest in U.S. history, was spawned by African-Americans searching for better racial conditions and job opportunities in the north (Lemann 1992). This out migration pattern has recently been counteracted by the “Return Migration” of Blacks moving South, some for the first time (Falk et al. 2004; Frey 2004).

Characteristics of African-American Forest Owners

Studies on African-American forest owners in the United States are concentrated in the Black Belt region of Alabama, where African-Americans reside in high concentrations. This region was named for its rich, dark, fertile soils which have given rise to productive forestland. Following are details regarding land characteristics, owner characteristics, and management practices of African-American forest landowners in the Black Belt region of Alabama.

Beginning with land characteristics, the median size of forestland owned by African-American’s in this region of Alabama is 40 acres with a range of 2 to 700 acres (Gan et al. 2003). The majority of owners (73%) hold 100 acres or less (Gan et al. 2003). These results are generally consistent with the size holdings of the general population of forestland owners in Alabama and the U.S. (Butler and Leatherberry 2004).

African-American forest owners are older, non-farmers, tend to own their land longer and be more highly educated than the general population of forest owners in Alabama. African-American forest owners have longer ownership tenure than other Alabama forest owners. Thirty-one percent of Black Belt African-American forest owners hold their properties for more than 25 years, compared to 31% of the general population of Alabama forest owners. African-Americans have a slightly higher concentration of owners 65 years and older (38%), tend to be nonfarmers (82%), and 77% have annual household incomes less than $50,000 (Gan et al. 2003).

Additionally, forests contribute little to the annual household income of African-American forest owners. Most (90%) indicated that income from their forest resources contribute less than 10% to their yearly household income (Gan and Kolison 1999). The educational attainment of African-American forest owners exceeds that of other forest owners in the state in terms of college education (66% vs. 56%), but lags in the category of high school education (22% vs. 32%).

The percentage of African-American forest owners in the Black Belt with a written management plan for their forestland (15%) is lower than the Alabama state average (27%), but still higher than the national average of 3% (Gan et al. 2003; Butler and Leatherberry 2004). Most African-American forest owners are active on their land with the most common activities being , in order of frequency, timber harvesting, forest thinning, conservation practices, allowing grazing, and tree planting for regeneration ((Gan et al. 2003; Gan and Kolison 1999).

Technical and financial assistance is available to aid landowners in managing and sustaining their land. Primary sources of this assistance in Alabama are the Alabama Forestry Commission, Cooperative Extension, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Thirty-percent of landowners reported receiving technical assistance with their forestland and 11% indicated receiving financial assistance (Gan et al. 2003). Many were not aware of the federal and state cost-share programs and those who were more dependent on their forestland financially were more apt to ask for assistance. Awareness of incentive programs and inability to afford cost-share required of financial assistance programs were cited as the most significant barriers to participation faced by minority landowners (Gan et al. 2005).

Level of income and education does not appear to play a significant role in predicting who seeks assistance, the majority of landowners do not seek help regardless of how rich or poor, educated or uneducated. The preferred modes of communication about technical and financial assistance were in field demonstrations or trainings, short courses or workshops, and to lesser extent brochures.

Key Challenges Facing African-American Forestlands

Among the challenges facing African-American forestland owners in the United States, land loss is the most prominent (Gilbert and Felin 2001; Pennick 1990; Wood and Gilbert 2000). Land retention is an issue among all forest owners, regardless of race, but African-Americans owners are disproportionately concentrated in smaller land acreage ownerships and this is where the losses have been most significant. Land loss has significant social impacts as it is often accompanied by decreased African-American voter participation rates, low involvement in civic organizations, increased poverty (Gilbert et al. 2001), lower educational attainment levels and lower incomes (Fraser et al. 2004).

The most prominent and common causes of African-American rural land loss in the Southern US are partition and voluntary sales, both of which are associated with heir property (Federation of Southern Cooperatives/Land Assistance Fund 2003). When a landowner passes without a will, the real property that they own is distributed to the closest surviving relatives by intestate succession and the deed to the land remains in the deceased owners name. This type of rural land succession has been occurring over multiple generations for more than 100 years.

Thus, some African-American owned lands can have hundreds of fractional co-owners which have a very small but legally recognized interest in the land (Federation of Southern Cooperatives/Land Assistance Fund 2003). Highly fractional heir property is defined as land for which “the numbers of fractional, undivided interests render land incapable of physical division (partition)” (Federation of Southern Cooperatives/Land Assistance Fund 2003).

While having many members of a family sharing land in common can be an asset, there are many challenges inherent in this ownership arrangement. Challenges arise when any one of the owners decides to sell their “portion” of the property, which can be done without the written consent of the other co-owners (Federation of Southern Cooperatives/Land Assistance Fund 2003). Additionally, a fractional heir property ownership arrangement can create a disincentive for investing in and improving the land due to the tenuous ownership arrangement or the fear of co-owners “free-riding” off that investment.

For those African-American forestland owners that are able to maintain ownership of their land, they are often not fully represented in state and national level inventories of owners. Inaccurate enumeration of African-American forest landowners in the U.S. mutes their importance. Ownership information derived from tax records show a significant undercounting of the number of African-American landowners (Fraser et al. 2004; Fraser et al. 2005). Localized studies are needed that document the extent of this “invisible” population which is not well represented in aggregated data at the state and national levels.

While locally relevant studies documenting the extent of the population, land characteristics, and experiences of African-American landowners have been done for some counties in Alabama (Bliss et al. 1993; Gan and Kolison 1999; Gan et al. 2003; Shelhas and Zabawa 2004; Gan et al. 2005; Gan and Kebede 2005; Fraser et al. 2005), much remains to be uncovered, especially in other regions. There is a growing body of literature that gives academic attention to African-American forest landowners, however there is insufficient extant research (Schelhas et al. 2003), particularly outside of Alabama and the southern United States. Schelhas et al. (2003) suggest that if we are to provide benefits and services equitably to all of society, then research is needed on how different forest owners—across the diversity of race, ethnicity, gender and class—use, relate to, and value forests.

African-Americans face many constraints regarding access to and use of private landowner government assistance programs. Historically, African-Americans have been underrepresented as landowners and underserved by governmental assistance programs and government loans that provide economic, educational, and technical assistance to landowners (Gan et al. 2003; Pennick 1990). One researcher explained that “racism contributed greatly to such low participation rates because most programs were implemented by local committees on which blacks were not represented, even in majority-black counties” (Gilbert et al. 2001, p. 9).

Discrimination within government assistance programs took the form of reduced or denial of access to technical and financial assistance programs; this has led to some level of distrust between African-American landowners and government landowner assistance programs (Gilbert et al. 2001). Understanding and resolving the disparities in landowner assistance program participation is important goal if equitable public policy is to be achieved.

Conclusions and Recommendations

African-American owned lands are linked to social outcomes such as higher levels of community well-being, political efficacy, and economic resiliency. Thus it is important that these lands be sustained as an important component of family forestlands in the United States. Outreach programs such as those in Cooperative Extension and state and federal natural resource agencies are significant determinants of equitable programs in forestry.

Outreach programs should consider ways to not only advertise existing programs but also to actively engage all landowners, including those with small acreages (Hughes et al. 2005). Another approach could be one that is used in Alabama, the hiring of “Outreach Foresters” to specifically work with underserved and underrepresented forest owners in the state (Alabama’s Treasured Foresters 2001). Recommendations for the outreach and research community are detailed below:

1. Seek an understanding of historical and structural relationship between African-Americans and forests in the United States.
2. Conduct needed research on African-American forest owners from individual, structural, and institutional perspectives.
3. Enhance the participation of African-American forest owners in existing outreach programs.
4. Tailor and develop outreach programs that appeal to African-American forest owners.

Through these recommendations we can begin to address the issues pertinent to diversity and equity from the perspective of African-American forest landowners in the United States.


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Shorna R. Broussard, PhD., is Associate Professor, Department of Natural Resources, Cornell University, Fernow Hall, Ithaca, NY 14853, srb237@cornell.edu

Updated 24 May May 2008

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