Alton Perry has spent his life working in forestry. After retiring from the North Carolina Forest Service, Perry set about focusing his efforts on making a difference in his community. Since 2013, Perry has been at the helm of the Sustainable Forestry and African-American Land Retention Project in North Carolina, which empowers landowners to keep and use forestland that has been passed down to them through generations. Through this initiative, Perry helps families turn their land from a liability into a source of income and pride for future generations.
What is the Sustainable Forestry and African-American Land Retention Project?
The Sustainable Forestry and African-American Land Retention Project began in 2013 as a partnership between the U.S. Endowment for Forestry and Communities, the Natural Resources Conservation Service, and the U.S. Forest Service. Our program now serves seven counties in northeastern North Carolina, and with our partner The Roanoke Center, we have now shared project information with their network of 14,000 members.
The goal of the program is to empower black landowners to retain their land, generate income and maintain healthy and productive forests. We try to meet landowners where they are. Some have never worked with a government agency before, so we guide them through the sustainable forestry planning process. We have these landowners sit around a table with the agencies to learn what their options are, and we educate them about land retention and sustainable forest management. Then, we help them make a plan to reach their goals.
How would you describe the communities you work with?
The majority of communities are small, rural agricultural groups whose main crops are peanuts, cotton and sweet potatoes. These are very economically distressed areas; 50 percent of the population is living at or below the poverty level and a third of them are black families.
What sort of transformations have you seen in these communities?
My favorite part of my job is seeing families become empowered by taking the information and guidance from our support system of partners and putting it into action. Mr. and Mrs. Kenneth Skinner are a great example of this. The Skinners moved from Connecticut to their family farm, owned by Mr. Skinner’s father, in North Carolina. By participating in our program, they were able to allocate 40 acres of their land for forestry and reduce their property taxes by 50 percent. Now, the Skinners are developing an estate plan so that their children and grandchildren can continue to manage the 123-acre farm.
Can you describe some of the problems these landowners are facing?
The biggest issue is land ownership rights. Land that has been passed down without a will becomes heir property and, in many cases, has multiple owners with different interests. This makes it very difficult for families to retain and make use of their forestland, and many times they end up seeing it as a liability instead of an asset. We typically work with families who own around 50 acres of land, though some have as many as 200 acres. These properties have the potential to be significant resources.
Another issue is a lack of knowledge about the tax code. Just recently, the Sustainable Forestry Project held a forest landowner workshop in Hertford County, where North Carolina State University Extension Forestry presented to landowners about present use — which means that depending on how you use your farmland or forestland, you could potentially reduce your property taxes significantly. As you can imagine, that is a big burden lifted for families living in poverty.
How do you hope to see this project grow in years to come?
It is my hope that through this project, black landowners will see their value and importance as forest landowners. I hope that landowners who participate in the project will become advocates for the project in their communities and assist other landowners through the process of land retention and sustainable forestry.
Moving forward, it will also be important for partners like Domtar, which has been with us since 2014, to continue to engage landowners through education and build their trust. Ideally, we want landowners to know who’s out there harvesting their trees, and Domtar is helping us educate landowners on the various uses for timber as well as how to put sustainable forestry practices into use. Projects like this need financial support, and Domtar has been helping us pay the project staff and fund community outreach and workshops.
What does sustainable forestry mean to you?
Sustainable forestry is about more than just the land. It also has to do with supporting people. It means landowners can go to agencies to get information and make better decisions. By sustaining those services, you’re actually sustaining the natural resources, as well. We encourage our landowners to see this as a family affair. If you have sons or daughters who may one day own this land, you have to show them what you’re doing so that they’ll sustain it through a holistic approach. For some of our folks, their land has been in their family for 100 years.
How do you hope to make a difference?
If you have a passion and other people see you follow it, it will inspire others to share their talents. It can be helping just one person. I try to lead by example. My whole career has been about assisting people, mostly landowners. It’s a passion, I suppose, that I can take a landowner — who has very little knowledge on how to maintain an asset they have and which they may even see as a liability — and provide them with an opportunity to see its economic value, as well as the social and environmental benefits it brings.