Outreach supports Black rural landowners in Northeast

For Sydney Antonio, a love of forests took root during childhood summers visiting upstate New York, where she and her cousins explored family-owned property covered by red oak, white ash, hard maple and other trees.

Today, she and her husband, Evon Antonio, sustainably manage 450 of those acres in Greene County as certified Tree Farmers and New York Master Forest Owner volunteers. But while their history and credentials resemble those of many fellow forest stewards, peers are often surprised when they meet.

“Quite frequently you sign up to go to a seminar, and when you show up everybody’s jaw drops because you’re Black and they never expected it,” Sydney Antonio said. “All of my life. I just chuckle to myself and pretend I didn’t notice.”

The Antonios shared their experiences in “‘The Stories Trees Have to Tell’: Black Land Stewardship in the Northeast,” an outreach publication launched recently by Shorna Allred, professor of natural resources and the environment and of global development in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, and colleagues from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.

Supported by a grant from the College of Arts and Sciences' Rural Humanities initiative through an Andrew W. Mellon Foundation award, the 30-page publication highlights the stories of five Black owners of forestland in Massachusetts, New York, New Hampshire and Vermont. The researchers share resources and recommend policies to expand access and support for current or prospective minority landowners facing legacies of discrimination.

“In the past, many Black landowners were denied access to federal programs supporting land ownership and farming, and that history of systemic discriminatory practices has to be acknowledged, recognized and overcome,” Allred said. “We thought the place to start was to listen to minority landowners and understand the context for their land stewardship and land management.”

The publication – shared with government agencies, nonprofits, land trusts and extension offices – is part of “Your Land, Your Legacy,” an initiative that encourages sound stewardship practices, estate planning and communication to help families sustain ecologically and financially valuable forests over generations.

Individual planning and stewardship decisions are critical in New York, Allred said, where about three-quarters of the state’s 19 million acres of forestland is privately owned. Black owners are rare – estimated to own just 1% of private forestland across the Northeast, according to the researchers. Those interviewed for the publication echoed the Antonios in saying that – while it hadn’t deterred them – they knew few, if any, peers who looked like them.

“All my mentors and those in my technical assistance network have been giving, wonderful and nice,” said Charles Harrison, who owns land in Ulster County, New York, and in Massachusetts. “But they all don’t know what it’s like personally to grow up Black, let alone a minority, doing something like this.”

The five featured landowners each discuss how they acquired their property, their stewardship goals, issues they’ve faced and obstacles or opportunities ahead. Harrison, for example, tapped many extension resources online, including Cornell ForestConnect, but sought more technical and financial support for a packaged food startup utilizing some of his land.

At the policy level, the researchers recommend facilitating networks for Black landowners and increasing conservation-based estate planning, access to land and assistance programs, and other engagement to address stereotypes and racial disparities in ownership.

A recent grant from the U.S. Forest Service will advance the project’s next phase, focused on developing peer-to-peer learning networks. Allred said the effort would be modeled after the U.S. Endowment for Forestry and Communities’ Sustainable Forestry and African American Land Retention Network, which successfully built networks in southern states where Black land ownership is more prevalent – but still down dramatically over the past century.

“As a community dedicated to the health of the land and the people that depend on it,” the researchers conclude, “we have an important role to play in using our knowledge and skills to help all those interested in land ownership to achieve their goals.”

Additional partners and funders for the project to date include the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Renewable Resources Extension Act; the Cornell Small Farms Program; the University of Massachusetts, Amherst’s Family Forest Research Center; and a grant provided to the Center for Northern Woodlands Education from the Bailey Charitable Foundation.

Read the story in the Cornell Chronicle.

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