Work to save black-owned forests garners praise

Bruce Smith, Associated Press
Work to save black-owned forests garners praise

Joe Leonard, left, the U.S. Department of Agriculture assistant secretary for civil rights, listens as Sam Cook explains a new program to help black landowners keep their forest land and realize value from it during a tour near Ridgeville, S.C. on Thursday. Nov. 7, 2013. Cook is the sustainable forestry program director for the Center for Heirs' Property Preservation which works to clear titles for land that has been passed down through generations of black landowners without clear title. (AP Photo/Bruce Smith)

RIDGEVILLE, S.C. (AP) -- A top U.S. Agriculture Department official praised a South Carolina pilot program Thursday and said it could be a model for keeping millions of acres of Southern forests in the hands of black landowners.

"I would hope that this could be replicated throughout the country," said Joe Leonard Jr., the assistant secretary of agriculture for civil rights, who visited rural Ridgeville to learn what the nonprofit Center for Heirs' Property Preservation is doing to help black landowners manage their forest land and realize value from it.

For almost a decade, the center has worked to clear titles on heirs' property — land generally deeded to blacks following the Civil War and passed down without benefit of wills. Much of it is now owned in common by sometimes dozens of heirs. Often, one descendant can demand their value and force a sale for the proceeds, at which time the land often passes out of the family.

Earlier this year the center and the Roanoke Electrical Cooperative-Roanoke Center in Ahoskie, N.C. began a pilot project to help preserve black-owned forests. It was financed in part by a $1.2 million grant from the U.S. Endowment for Forestry and Communities and agencies of Agriculture Department. The object is to help blacks realize income from their forest land through timbering, forest products and hunting rights.

"If we can help families earn money while clearing title to their land, we're going to help a lot of African-American families in the South," said Jennie Stephens, executive director of the center. She estimated there is at least 41,000 acres of heirs' property in the six South Carolina counties that the center serves.

According to the U.S. Forest Service, about 229 million acres of southern forest is owned privately, about 16 million of that by blacks and other minorities.

Sam Cook, the sustainable forestry director for the center, said the agency has identified 130 landowners with about 5,000 acres interested in working on developing management plans for their forests.

He said there's already a success story. One landowner had planned to sell 22 acres of his land to help pay his mortgage. But after working with the center, he took the land off the market and will raise the money through timbering.