Deliver Benefits to the Public

Migration, forestry and heirs’ property


Community garden in New York City. Many New Yorkers own land in the South. Photo courtesy of Eric Wittman.

GEORGIA – Urban-rural connections are quite important for land and forest management in the South. From the early 1900s to about 1970, many African Americans migrated from southern farms to industrializing northern cities. Since then many have returned to their homelands. Southern Research Station Research Forester John Schelhas, has studied African American forest landownership since 1999, and is currently working with the Sustainable Forestry and African American Land Retention Project.

The SFLR is a partnership between the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service, the U.S. Endowment, and the Forest Service. Since 2012, SFLR has supported community-based assistance programs in seven southern states. In talking with landowners about his recent work with the SFLR, connections between Brooklyn, NY and the rural southern area around Charleston, SC stood out.

In January, Schelhas and some of his colleagues participated in the New York Urban Field Station’s monthly Stewardship Salon, where members from community groups come together to talk about environmental stewardship topics with enthusiasm. And in March, he attended the 34th GreenThumb GrowTogether Conference in New York, which focuses on community gardens.

Schelhas’ goals were to talk with people with connections to the rural South and meet folks from organizations in NY. Numerous people had connection to South Carolina – particularly the Charleston, Orangeburg, and Columbia areas. There were also many people with connections to North Carolina, mostly in the Wilmington area.

“In my research with African American forest owners, we have frequently encountered landowners who returned to family land either to care for aging parents or after retirement,” Schelhas said. “Many are engaged landowners, working to resolve heirs’ property and engage in forestry.”

Some interesting research questions remain.

  • What is the nature of these relationships between two places?
  • How do they influence people’s identity and families?
  • What do these relationships mean and how do they affect behavior, both in New York and in the South?
  • What are the benefits of exploring these relationships?

Understanding multi-local senses of place and bringing out these stories could be beneficial. There are opportunities to connect more people to the Sustainable Forestry and African American Land Retention program for help with heirs’ property and forestry.