Two Arkansas forestland owners recently traveled to Washington, D.C., to participate in the annual American Forest Foundation (AFF) Fly-in and advocate on behalf of the “Keeping it in the Family” (KIITF) Sustainable Forestry and Land Retention (SLFR) Program.

KIITF is administered by the Small Farm Program at the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff, according to a news release.

Dora Woods, Columbia County landowner, and Sequoyah Browning, Ouachita County landowner, met with Arkansas senators and representatives to share feedback on the practical and financial impact farm and forest legislation has on forestland operations.

The KIITF-SFLR program began in 2016 to aid African-American landowners in turning their forested properties into economic assets. It is a partnership of the U.S. Endowment for Forestry and Communities, U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) and USDA Forest Service.

As landowners, Woods and Browning have participated in and received assistance from the KIITF program. The program aims to provide African-American landowners in Arkansas with the resources and support required to resolve common heir property issues, as well as sustainable forestry education and technical assistance in forestland management.

Woods said the AFF Fly-in is an opportunity for forestland owners to engage with their state senators and congressmen to share feedback on the impact of farm and forest legislation in their individual operations.

She and Browning met with Arkansas legislators U.S. Sen. John Boozman and Rep. Bruce Westerman (4th district), as well as staff of Sen. Tom Cotton, Rep. Stephen Allen Womack (3rd district) and Rep. Rick Crawford (1st district).

Later, they met with two members of the House Black Caucus, Rep. Terri A. Sewell (Alabama’s 7th district) and Rep. Sanford Bishop Jr. (Georgia’s 2nd district) and joined other African-American landowners involved in the SFLR program from several states to meet with NRCS Chief Matthew Lohr and U.S. Forest Service Chief Vicki Christiansen.

“I described my experience with the KIITF program and explained how my participation has helped educate me on the resources available to help manage my family’s land so that it can become an asset by producing lumber products,” Woods said. “I also explained that more funding is needed to support legal aid for families that need help in clearing the titles for inherited land.”

Heir property – land that is inherited by a group of family members – can be a major problem for African-American communities in Arkansas, as this type of property leaves families without the clear titles that allow for active management of the land, thereby limiting any economic returns, Woods said.

In her case, Woods shares interest in 80 acres of inherited family land with 75 other people. Since the land is still in her great-grandfather’s name, the property title needs to be cleared before she can participate in USDA programs that would benefit the land.

The KIITF program helped Woods understand all the options for managing her family’s land. First, she learned about the different types of business entities she could structure the land as. Then she learned about specific ways she can make a profit from timber once the property title is cleared.

Woods recommends that other Arkansas forestland owners get involved with the KIITF program.

“Before working with KIITF, I didn’t have access to vital information about managing the family land,” she said. “Now I have a much better idea about what our options are and how we can go forward. Landowners have the chance to learn how they can structure their land so they can keep it in the family name and potentially make a profit.”

Woods said she has always had a close connection to her family’s land.

“My grandmother was always very involved in the land, my mother paid the property taxes, and I visit the land to this day,” she said. “No one in the family has given strong thought to what will happen to the land after I’m gone. I’m trying to structure the process, so the next person in line to inherit it will have a plan in place.”

— Will Hehemann is a writer/editor with the UAPB School of Agriculture, Fisheries and Human Sciences.