Small-scale Forestry

, Volume 16, Issue 3, pp 395–417 | Cite as

“A Privilege and a Challenge”: Valuation of Heirs’ Property by African American Landowners and Implications for Forest Management in the Southeastern U.S.

  • Sarah HitchnerEmail author
  • John Schelhas
  • Cassandra Johnson Gaither
Research Paper


African Americans have historically struggled to retain land that has been held in their families for generations as heirs’ property, or land held collectively by heirs of the original owners without clear title. Ethnographic interviews with sixty landholding African American families in North Carolina, South Carolina, and Alabama reveal the cultural meanings associated with family land, forestland in particular, and the role of heirs’ property in inhibiting forest management, including the threat of land loss, intra-family conflict, and legal limitations on forestry activities. The majority of interviewees have a strong desire to pass family land on to their heirs, but they also need the land to be economically productive. Sustainable forest management offers both an incentive to obtain clear title to heirs’ property land and a means of paying property taxes and generating intergenerational wealth within families. The U.S. Endowment for Forestry and Communities is currently collaborating with local institutions in several states in an innovative program designed to help African American landowners navigate the legal system in order to obtain clear title and provide educational workshops about the financial and ecological benefits of sustainable forestry as well as site visits by consulting foresters. Analysis of the situations faced by African Americans with heirs’ property adds to the diversity of our understandings of the complex relationships between land tenure and forestry, with potential application for other minority communities in the U.S. and elsewhere.


African Americans Forest landowners Minority landowners Family forests Heirs’ property Black land loss Sustainable forest management 



This research was conducted with funding from the U.S. Endowment for Forestry and Communities, as part of the “Sustainable Forestry and African American Land Retention Program” jointly funded by The Endowment, the Natural Resources Conservation Service, and the USDA Forest Service. We would like to thank the project foresters and partner organizations, as well as all participating landowners, in each state. We would specifically like to acknowledge Sam Cook, Alton Perry, Andrew Williams, Hodges Smith, and Alex Harvey for assistance with field work. We also gratefully acknowledge the grant management assistance of the Institute for Behavioral Research and the research support of the Center for Integrative Conservation Research at the University of Georgia.


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Copyright information

© Steve Harrison, John Herbohn 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Center for Integrative Conservation ResearchUniversity of GeorgiaAthensUSA
  2. 2.Southern Research Station, USDA Forest ServiceAthensUSA

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