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BLACK HISTORY MONTH: Family ties and forestlands

Generational connections and strong memories encourage African American forest ownership


Walter Collins’ connection to his forestland began almost 200 years ago, when his great-great-great grandmother, then just a baby, was sold with her mother to a plantation in central Georgia’s Hancock County.

Decades later, after his grandfather moved the family away for better opportunities and Collins gained experience in the military and his own career, he’s returned to these roots of uprooting.

Collins now owns about 230 acres of forestland, some of which overlaps with the original plantation that held his ancestors.

“My mother said, ‘Are you crazy? You want to come back?’” says Collins. But Collins was determined. “I decided a long time ago, this was where I was going to come back in retirement.”

Collins is part of a small but dedicated group of African American forest landowners who want to use their land as an economic resource. For generations, this has been an uphill battle, as would-be property owners face discrimination, conflicting land-use priorities and issues over ownership through “heirs property,” where land is left to multiple family members without any probated will. In the South in particular, heirs property disproportionately affects African American landowners and can make it difficult to make land management decisions, sell timber or even get loans to begin a timber operation.

But state and federal programs, including research and outreach based at the University of Georgia Warnell School of Forestry and Natural Resources, are working with landowners to overcome these obstacles. By connecting families with resources to work out legal issues, find financing and learn best management practices, more landowners are able to connect their land to an increased revenue stream—whether it’s property handed down through generations or landowners, like Collins, who see the benefit in growing timber on the newly acquired land.

And by tapping into Georgia’s large timber industry, this work is one way to celebrate and honor the history that connects African Americans to their land.

“In some ways, forest landownership has a higher value for rural African American communities than other rural communities since it constitutes a source of wealth and power in places they have been denied both,” writes Noah Goyke, a Warnell graduate student, and associate professor Puneet Dwivedi, in a study they co-authored last year on African American forest landowners.

Dwivedi added that removing this barrier opens more pathways to land becoming an asset. “Sustainable forestry holds enormous potential for all family forest landowners in general and African American forest landowners in particular,” he says. “All landowners should resolve heirs’ property so that they can actively participate in cost-share programs for profiting from their forestlands. Doing so makes forestland an asset rather than a liability.”   

James GrableLike Collins, James Grable, 68, also feels a connection to his Hancock County property. Once owned by his grandfather, the 200-plus acres are now owned, in part, by 10 cousins, including Grable. While the ownership makes it difficult to make clear decisions on land management, Grable says the land still holds significance, and continues the legacy of his grandfather.

“I grew up on that property and I learned how to do farm work there. I learned how to do gardens, I learned how to live off the property,” he says. “My grandfather, he farmed cotton, corn, sweet potatoes—regular garden stuff. We ate off that property for years, up until he wasn’t able to farm it anymore.”

For decades, his grandfather tilled 50 acres with his hands and a pair of mules. In the years before he died, at age 96, he sold some timber off his property. The proceeds were enough to give him a solid income, and now his descendants see the value of timberland.

Like the tree-covered land owned by Collins and Grable, the majority of Georgia’s 24 million acres of forestland is privately owned—although only about 1.7% of this land is owned by African American families. But in places like rural Hancock County, forest landowners such as Collins and Grable see the potential in their land.

Collins, for example, recently planted about 100 acres of seedlings. He’s still learning about land management, though, and continues to get guidance from UGA, the U.S. Forest Service and Fort Valley State University, which have partnered in the outreach efforts.

His history and his commitment to this land, though, are unwavering.

“I’m very fortunate that I grew up in a household with my grandmother and great-grandmother—it was her grandmother who was on that ship, and her great-grandmother, so she was able to pass down that history to me, verbally,” he says. “I’ve always been connected to land—it gives birth to trees, plants, and gardening is my hobby. So, buying that land, it was natural for me.”

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