Land Justice: Forester Untangles the Thorny Challenges of ‘Heirs Property’
At the first Yale Forest Forum, a veteran forester discussed the legal and economic challenges of so-called “heirs’ property,” a phenomenon common in the U.S. South in which the title to land remains in the name of a person even after they have die — while the land rights are passed down, informally, from one generation to the next.
By Allegra Wiprud
Note: Yale School of the Environment (YSE) was formerly known as the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies (F&ES). News articles and events posted prior to July 1, 2020 refer to the School's name at that time.
“How many of you don’t get along with your family?” Sam Cook, a professional forester from the U.S. South, asked a group of Yale students last week.
After watching a few tentative hands go up he asked a follow up question. “Have you ever had to fight over money with your family?” A few hands went down. “Have you had to fight over land with your family?” Then silence.
“Then you don’t know what ‘not getting along’ means.”
Cook was delivering a Forest Forum seminar on “heirs’ property,” a phenomenon common in the U.S. South in which the title to land remains in the name of a person even after they have died, while the land rights are passed down, informally, from one generation to the next.
The phenomenon, which is most common in southern states from Texas to Florida, particularly among rural African American families, historically has left these families vulnerable to exploitation and land loss, said Cook, Executive Director of Forest Assets in the College of Natural Resources at North Carolina State University.
The Yale Forest Forum is a weekly series is hosted by the Global Institute of Sustainable Forestry, which is based at the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies (F&ES).
Passing land and property down within the family without involving the legal system was a way to ensure some measure of safety during the many decades when land theft, legal deception, and violence were widespread risks for Black households. Heir property can date back just one or two generations to a parent or grandparent who died without a clear will. Sometimes, heir property dates all the way back to the 1870s — the Reconstruction Era — when formerly enslaved people first gained the legal right to own land, yet did not have safe access to the legal system to formally pass on their land. The longer land stays as heir property, the more descendants with a claim there will be — sometimes more than a hundred.
However, heir-property status also introduces uncertainty over ownership and responsibility and, ultimately, conflict as families try to work out claims on land. Without clear title, responsibility for property taxes and maintenance can be confusing and go neglected or become the cause of infighting. Unclear title also disqualifies households from many government grant programs, including USDA grants, farmer and timberland assistance programs, emergency home repair programs, and even assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).
Efforts to resolve heir property can be incredibly difficult. Legal and financial strains and family conflict opens up families to predatory real estate practices — that is, purchasing land for a fraction of its value — as they seek a resolution to their problems by simply leaving. Or it can lead to court-ordered sales of land, as it can be easier to divide money than property.
Today, the Center for Heirs Property Preservation (CHPP) is one of several organizations working with families and advocating for legal changes to protect landowners. Cook began working with CHPP, a Charleston, S.C.-based nonprofit, in 2012 as their first director of forestry after a career spanning industry, the U.S. Forest Service, and academia. He is now the Executive Director of Forest Assets at the College of Natural Resources at North Carolina State University.
While working with CHPP, he created a new division for the organization focused on helping families put their land to use through sustainable forestland management plans and timber harvesting.
“We try to teach the landowners we work with to figure out how to use your land to make money off of it and don’t be cheated by all these people coming by and offering you pennies on the dollar for your land, or for your timber, where you’re getting just a fraction of what it’s really worth,” he said. “We want people to work with professionals to figure out what it’s really worth, but most importantly to talk to your family and encourage the whole family to do the right thing with the land and not to take what someone offers you just because they show up with a little bit of money.”
He shared stories of landowners with whom he consulted on land utilization. “I was sitting in a room talking to landowners. This lady said, ‘I have to sell my land because I can’t afford the taxes.’ I asked, ‘How much are your taxes?’ She said, ‘Thirty-three dollars a year.’” The same woman also shared that she owned 30 acres. After Cook walked her through back-of-the-envelope estimates of what she might earn from sustainable timber harvesting, she proclaimed, “I can pay my taxes for the rest of my life, I can fix my house, and I can put money in the bank!”
Then there was a family that had been offered $100,000 by a forester for harvesting timber on their land. After working with a consulting forester from the Center for Heirs’ Property Preservation, they learned that their timber was worth over $400,000, and that they were also eligible for another $150,000 in Farm Bill funding to replant seedlings that the next generation would be able to harvest.
Educating landowners isn’t as simple as setting up a meeting and waiting for people to come, he said. Building trust with rural landowners can be challenging, he said; especially in a context of historic exploitation. “I can’t walk up to you as a landowner and say, ‘I’m Sam, I’m from this nonprofit and I’m here to help you manage your land.’ It doesn’t work. I have to get invited to your church, to your home, to your reunion — but first, I have to spend some time getting to know you, as an individual. Then maybe we can talk about the land. Every landowner I meet starts out by lying about how much land they have and where it is. They don’t want to risk losing it.”
Cook’s reflections resonated with F&ES students. “I appreciated that he spoke to issues of communicating with landowners,” said Rob Turnbull ’19 M.F. “Forestry is fundamentally a business of relationships and it’s really important to learn sensitivity when working with people.”
In addition to the Forest Forum lecture, Cook spent several days on campus meeting with students and faculty from across the university discussing forestry as well as his experience as an African-American man in the forestry industry and the academy.
“He brought an informed, experiential account of the discipline we study,” said Thomas Easley, assistant dean of community and inclusion at F&ES. “It was great for the students, staff, and faculty to engage with a leader in forestry that shared his expertise as well as his journey through his identity."
Allegra Lovejoy Wiprud ’20 M.E.M. is a master’s student at the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies.