Sustainable Forestry and Land Retention Project marks progress in empowering landowners

The Sustainable Forestry and Land Retention Project has made significant progress helping local forest landowners retain their land, generate income and maintain healthy and productive forests.

Since its launch in 2013,  more than 225 landowners have been able to access about $500,000 in financial assistance for forestry and legal services. Approximately,13,000 acres of land are now under management with forestry and/or agricultural conservation plans.

The Roanoke Center, the nonprofit subsidiary of Roanoke Electric Co-op, developed the forestry project, which brings together a wide range of community resources to help these landowners thrive. It has provided participants opportunities to develop succession plans, explore new marketing opportunities and adopt new forestry technologies.

While the numbers associated with the program’s growth are impressive, Program Manager Alton Perry says sustainable forestry is about more than the land.

“It has every bit as much to do with supporting people,” he said. “The majority of communities where we provide services are small, rural and economically distressed. Landowners need someone to meet them where they are, increase their knowledge of services and programs available, and help them convert property they often view as a burden into the significant assets they can become.”

The project began as a partnership between the U.S. Endowment for Forestry and Communities, the Natural Resources Conservation Service, the U.S. Forest Service, and the American Forest Foundation.

The driving force behind this initiative was the alarming rate at which local African Americans, in particular, were losing their forestland in the region. Ninety-five percent of them incurred such a loss between 1969 and 2007.

In 1969, U.S. Census recorded 3,789 African American farmers in the region, who owned 218,739 acres of farmland. By 2007, the numbers dropped to only 203 African American farmers, owning just 20,730 acres. This drastic loss is attributed to many factors, including landowners dying without succession plans in place.

Typically, the biggest issue facing the families that the program assists is land ownership rights, Perry said. Land that has been passed down without a will becomes the property of heirs and, in many cases, has multiple owners with different interests.

“This makes it very difficult for families to retain and make use of their forestland,” Perry said.

“For some of our project participants, their land has been in their family for 100 years,” he added. “It’s extremely rewarding to help position them to make good decisions that increase family wealth and sustain natural resources at the same time.”

One of the beneficiaries of the sustainable forestry project is the family of Tyrone William, which owns Fourtee Acres, a 62-acre forestry, farming, and rental property in Halifax County.  The land was handed down by his grandparents and is part of the century’s old Williams Family Farm.

“The Sustainable Forestry and Land Retention Project has led the way and been a centerpiece in our family journey, along with our partners,” he said in a recent blog post. The family set as goals succession planning, generating wealth and environmental conservation. “We are fortunate to have the financial and technical support of such a program and resource professionals to assist us in reaching our family goals.”