Documentary premier highlights achievements of sustainable forestry program

“Can we plant some more?”

Those are the scene-stealing words spoken by the four-year-old grandson of South Carolina’s Mary Hill in the closing moments of “America’s Forests with Chuck Leavell.” Hill is among three African-American landowners featured in the program that shows her grandchildren planting young pine trees on the 100-plus acres of land her family has owned since the 1860s.

This latest episode, the third in a documentary series, premiered Dec. 10 at a national museum in Washington, D.C. Hosted by the famed Rolling Stones keyboardist who shares a passion for land and forests with his wife Rose Lane Leavell, the documentary focuses on the Sustainable Forestry and African American Land Retention Program, which helps landowners turn their forested properties into economic assets in North Carolina and six other states.

The program’s North Carolina site is sponsored in part by Roanoke Electric Cooperative and The Roanoke Center. Co-op staffers and two families who own land in Bertie and Gates counties were among the hundreds of sustainable forestry champions who attended the recent premier.

The episode is a testimonial to the remarks made by several speakers at the premiere – specifically that the Sustainable Forestry and Land Retention program established earlier this decade is having positive, long-lasting impacts in the lives of program participants.

Families are establishing a legacy for future generations, building wealth, and growing healthy and productive forests and wildlife habitats, said Cheryl Peterson, managing director of the McIntosh Sustainable Environment and Economic Development program site in Georgia.

They are doing this by applying best practices to access forestry markets, building relationships with fellow landowners and state and federal forestry experts, attending workshops, and becoming advocates to effect policy changes by state and federal lawmakers, Peterson said.

Carlton Owen, president and chief executive officer of the U.S. Endowment for Forestry and Communities, said the program now has more than 1,300 families participating as it works “to arrest and reverse” the 96 percent reduction over the past century in the number of African-American families owning forest land.

More than 180 of those families are participating in the North Carolina Sustainable Forestry and Land Retention Project. They own approximately 11,000 acres of land and, to date, 120 forest management plans have been created for approximately 6,300 acres.

“A lot of shenanigans” caused the massive decline in forest land ownership among African Americans, said House Majority Whip James Clyburn of South Carolina. Recalling that he learned early in his career about the problems that heirs property disputes pose for land retention, Clyburn expressed pleasure at the gains being made under the Sustainable Forestry partnerships among federal and state agencies, non-governmental organizations and other sponsors.

“They’ve done great work trying to reverse this trend,” Clyburn told the event’s attendees.

The recent American Forests premiere “increases awareness on a national level of issues around heirs property and access to technical assistance for African-American landowners,” said Alton Perry, program manager for the Sustainable Forestry and Land Retention Project. “Just as important is how the Sustainable Forestry projects, like the one at the Roanoke Center/Roanoke Electric Cooperative, are addressing these issues by being a catalyst to develop collaborations that engage and guide African-American and other minority landowners on forest management and land retention strategies.”

Watch all 3 episodes on the America's Forests with Chuck Leavell website.