Help for African American Landowners through Collaborations
Vander Green was at his wit’s end. He owed money on the mortgage for 42 acres he had inherited from his father, who had bought it in 1940. His monthly income had changed since his sister had passed away. Green figured he had to sell 21 acres to make enough to pay his debt. There didn’t seem to be another way out, until his neighbor saw his “For Sale” sign and connected him to Sam Cook, then-director of the Sustainable Forestry and African American Land Retention Program of the Center for Heirs’ Property Preservation, a collaborative effort between the U.S. Endowment for Forestry and Communities, the USDA Forest Service and the Natural Resources Conservation Service.
“Van and I ended up walking his land together,” Cook says. “Right away, I could see there was enough fiber on the land to give him some income.” Green received multiple quotes for purchasing the wood on 38 acres. He picked the best price and logging began. Cook even got Green an advance on his timber. “That’s when I knew he was for real,” says Green.
After the harvest, Green took down the “For Sale” sign. He’d made not only enough money to meet his mortgage payments but to make a profit and to save every inch of his land. He’s proud of what he’s done and has many ideas about what he hopes to do. “I’m number one in the forestry program now,” he says with a wink. His enthusiasm has infected others.
— Vander Green’s story by Tish Lynn, excerpted from the spring 2014 issue of the Center for Heirs’ Property newsletter, HP Matters
The Center for Heirs’ Property Preservation
The Center for Heirs’ Property Preservation (CHPP) in South Carolina’s Lowcountry began in 2002 at the Coastal Community Foundation as the Heirs’ Property Preservation Project, providing legal education and direct legal services to low-income heirs’ property owners to help them obtain clear title and preserve family land. In 2005 CHPP became an independent organization.
CHPP describes heirs’ property as land owned “in common” by all heirs, regardless of whether they live on the land or pay the taxes. Throughout the Southeast, heirs’ property is mostly rural land owned by African Americans who purchased or were deeded it after the Civil War. Historically, African Americans were routinely denied access to the legal system and much of their land was passed through generations without a written will, thus becoming heirs’ property. Without clear title to the land, many obstacles arise.
CHPP’s focus expanded over time to include helping low-income landowners identify and pursue sustainable land use options that could increase income. CHPP launched the Sustainable Forestry and African American Land Retention Program in 2013 to provide African American landowners with education and technical assistance to develop and implement sustainable forest management plans. The program helps landowners understand and leverage the relationship between forestry, economic benefit, land retention and family legacy.
Removing Barriers and Building Bridges
Although conservation easements could help CHPP’s landowners, hardly anyone has heard of them. Sam Cook explains, “Our landowners have never needed to understand easements because they’re trying to hold on to their land. With a new generation of landowners, this could be a tool that can help them and their families retain their land in the long term. In addition to education, there’s got to be a lot of trust-building involved in helping people understand that they’re not signing their land away — they get the benefits; they’re just giving up development rights.”
Conservation easements are also not an area of CHPP expertise. “Land trusts are the experts on them — they know the technical ins and outs and where the money and resources are,” says Cook. To bridge these gaps, CHPP has developed partnerships that build on land trusts’ technical capacity and resources, and on CHPP’s relationships with a population land trusts have not historically reached out to.
Even after landowners clear the hurdles of understanding conservation easements and can embrace their benefits, other challenges remain. For example, many of CHPP’s landowners own 40 or fewer acres, and it can be difficult to find a partner organization willing to take on the project costs for a relatively small property. CHPP landowners with larger properties often lack access to funds required to cover transaction costs.
To lower these barriers, CHPP, Lowcountry Land Trust (accredited) and other South Carolina land trusts are helping African American landowners on John’s Island create a timber cooperative. The project will enable smaller landowners to include their land in a master management plan with larger landowners so that they can all access the same services. It will also allow landowners to continue revenuegenerating sustainable forestry. CHPP is working with conservation and community development partners to create a grant program that would provide support for transaction costs if and when the cooperative chooses to place a conservation easement on the land.
“Working intentionally with traditionally disenfranchised communities is vital for our communities and for our survival,” says Ashley Demosthenes, executive director of Lowcountry Land Trust.
CHPP also connects landowners to conservation resources through its partnership with the Sewee Longleaf Conservation Cooperative, led by The Nature Conservancy (accredited). SLCC focuses on the Conservancy’s priority to restore longleaf pine forests, a threatened native ecosystem in the South.
Through the cooperative, CHPP helps African American landowners in and around Francis Marion National Forest access technical assistance, advice and funding from a range of state and federal agencies to restore and ensure management of their longleaf pine forests. Mark Robertson, executive director of the Conservancy’s South Carolina Chapter, says, “While our objectives are still ecologically driven, it’s meaningful to us to help ensure that minority landowners have access to the resources and knowledge that other landowners have access to.”
Although CHPP undertakes conservation activities with its landowners, it is always with an eye toward furthering the financial benefit of the land. As Executive Director Jennie Stephens puts it, “Land is the asset that we are working with, but our emphasis is on the people and preserving their culture and heritage.”
On the Brink of Collaboration
In their recent study “Accounting for Heirs’ Property in Private Land Conservation Planning: A Case Study in Rural Georgia” authors Bryn Elise Murphy, Cassandra Johnson Gaither, J. Scott Pippin and Shana Jones put forth that “an appreciable portion of natural lands may be held as heirs’ property in rural communities in the South.” As land trusts and others seek to expand their engagement with low-wealth, minority and other historically underserved communities, the authors suggest that land trusts could adapt strategies to better serve heirs’ property landowners, such as partnering with public interest law centers.