Thursday, April 11, 2013
Two sites in the Carolinas have been selected as pilots for the launch of a collaborative $1.2 million grant program to help stem the loss of African American owned forests. The program is a joint venture of the U. S. Endowment for Forestry and Communities, (the “Endowment”), the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) and the USDA Forest Service (Forest Service).
Recipients and project leads are the Center for Heirs’ Property Preservation (the “Center”) in Charleston and the Roanoke Electrical Cooperative/Roanoke Center in Ahoskie, N.C. Each project will receive direct grants totaling $425,000 over 30 months and significant technical and program support from NRCS and the Forest Service field staff. Additional funds will be raised locally and regionally to support each project. Separate grants will support baseline research on the conditions and income potential of African American-owned forests and specialized forestry services for landowners.
“This Sustainable Forestry Program will allow the center to further its mission by establishing a network of partners who will provide the tools for these landowners to generate income from their land while maintaining ownership for many generations to come,” says Jennie Stephens, the center’s executive director.
The grant to the Center for Heirs’ Property Preservation was formally announced on March 26th at Voorhees College in Denmark by Sixth District South Carolina Congressman Jim Clyburn and USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack who both emphasized the importance of restoring a healthy rural economy by addressing its persistent poverty through programs and increased social capital.
“Our poor, rural areas pose a national problem,” cautioned Clyburn. “We must make sure that rural communities are treated with equity – not equally, but according to needs.”
Vilsack sees the response to those needs coming from both the government and the private sectors. Acknowledging that there is a distrust of government programs in rural America, Vilsack extolled the value and proven success of “Strike Force,” a government program that is expanding into South Carolina and will partner with local organizations to identify areas of persistent poverty and community needs.
“We must partner with community organizations to get more resources into these areas. There are over 400 partners in Strike Force states that are helping us to do that by sending teams of folks into needy areas. People who are here today like Ann English from NRCS and Mr. Stangel from the US Endowment of Forestry and Communities.”
Regarding the private sector, Vilsack will reach out and encourage private foundations “to invest a percentage of their portfolio in rural businesses to enlarge social capital.” As an example, Vilsack applauded Stangel, vice president of the U.S. Endowment, for challenging the USDA by pledging $1M to help African Americans to maintain sustainable forestry practices. “The folks at NRCS and our U.S. Forest Service are assisting with $100,000 each to help African American forest owners develop sustainable practices and make sure they can hang on to forest areas. This is the kind of partnership you are going to see more of.”
The purpose of the two programs funded by the endowment is to restore and conserve threatened, African American forestland in the southern U. S. by increasing forest-owner income and land asset value. Loss of historic black family land is endemic in the region where past discrimination and economic factors have diminished the value and productivity of black-owned forests. The project will introduce new forestry technologies, create trusted, comprehensive and replicable systems of landowner outreach and support and develop income streams by connecting forest owners to traditional and emerging forest products markets.
Vilsack painted a vivid picture of rural America and why it can no longer be ignored and forgotten if America is to be an economic success going forward. With these two funded programs, the endowment is striving to answer his implied call to action.
“Rural America is the place where most of our food and water comes from to make us a food secure nation. It is the place where most of our power, electricity and fuel come from – including the bio fuels of the future. It is the place where families send a disproportionate number of children to the military. It is a place often ignored, while battling persistent poverty.”
The two grantee organizations will lead networks of private and public agencies to deliver comprehensive services to forest owners. The networks include state and federal agencies, academic institutions, nonprofits, legal services organizations, loan funds, forestry consultants and forest products industries.
“For complex historical and economic reasons, minority-owned forests in the South are often not managed for optimum forest health and income,” said endowment president, Carlton Owen. “However, recent policy and program focus within USDA and state forestry agencies along with growing interest by minority landowners, creates opportunity to support landowners by accelerating sound forestry practices, increased income and retention of historic family land.”
The South Carolina project is led by the Center for Heirs’ Property Preservation in Charleston. The center provides education, and legal and land use planning services to minority landowners with unclear land titles due to land passing without wills or estate plans. They are also focused on land retention strategies including land-based income and asset value creation. The project will serve landowners in Beaufort, Berkley, Charleston, Colleton, Dorchester and Georgetown counties. Network participating agencies include: South Carolina USDA NRCS, USDA Forest Service, the Black Family Land Trust, Charleston School of Law, The Conservation Fund, MeadWestvaco Corporation (MWV), Kapstone Corporation, American Forest Management, South Carolina Forestry Commission, South Carolina Wildlife Federation, National Wildlife Federation, Clemson University Department of Forestry and Natural Resources, Clemson University Extension Services and the Lowcountry Housing Trust. Contact: Jennie L. Stephens, executive director, Center for Heirs’ Property Preservation, 843-745-7055, firstname.lastname@example.org.