February 15, 2023
McIntosh SEED preserves land and legacy with black landowners in the southern United States
Apple and The Conservation Fund collaborate with community organizations across the region to expand sustainable land retention and climate resilience in Black and Brown communities
Throughout the Deep South, there are memories buried deep in the soil. For Junetta O’Neal, owner of BoMax Ranch and Retreat in Crawfordville, Georgia, it’s a reminder of her ancestors, who worked the land for generations before she discovered her love of nature the first time she saw a horse.
“When I first got into BoMax, it was a very relaxing environment for me—one where I could be at peace and one with nature,” describes O’Neill. “It kind of spoke to me, and I realized it was my ancestors who had allowed me to be where I am now. I’m standing on their shoulders to be here. I started naming roads after them as a way of honoring them. After hosting my cousins and making them feel connected to the land, he replayed Confirmation that I’m heading in the right direction with this project: creating a legacy for our family.”
O’Neal is a participant in the McIntosh SEED Sustainable Forest and Land Retention Program. She, along with 20 other landowners, visited the McIntosh SEED Community Forest in Long County, Georgia, last December to participate in a forestry workshop. O’Neill and her fellow landowners and their children and grandchildren met forest experts to learn about the benefits of thinning trees, the importance of shrub removal, and how to measure and identify tree species to understand their economic value.
The 1,148-acre McIntosh SEED Forest was acquired in 2015 in partnership with The Conservation Fund and is the first black-owned community forest in the United States. Through the educational work it does on the site, the nonprofit aims to amplify the voices of Black and Brown landowners in the conservation movement.
“We wanted a place where we could actually bring land owners, a pilot site where they could see conservation practices,” says Cheryl Peterson, assistant managing director of McIntosh SEED. “It puts the landowner in a place of empowerment.”
The McIntosh County, Georgia-based nonprofit is one of many organizations across the southern United States that The Conservation Fund is working with — in partnership with Apple — to promote sustainable forests, achieve racial justice, and build climate resilience. Through community-focused workshops, trainings, and programs, McIntosh SEED is developing a joint BIPOC land retention strategy and improving climate practices that can be scaled up throughout the region. By harnessing thousands of family-owned farms and forests, and institutionalized black landowners—primarily historically black churches, colleges, and universities—their efforts will help address climate change, supporting best practices for climate resilience and adaptation on privately owned lands.
“To advance justice and address climate change, we have to share resources and partner with organizations that have real experience on the ground,” says Lisa Jackson, Apple’s vice president of environment, policy and social initiatives. “I’ve always believed that the strongest solutions come from focusing on the most vulnerable communities, not ignoring them. In places like McIntosh County, families come together to preserve the land that supports us all.”
Located on the south coast of Georgia, McIntosh County is indicative of the many southern BIPOC communities that McIntosh SEED works to preserve.
“There are very few high-paying jobs or jobs that pay a living wage in the area,” Peterson explains. “It’s really hard for people here to turn their families around because they are constrained at a certain level economically. I see that whether you’re in Georgia or Alabama or Mississippi; all of those dynamics come with being in a marginalized community.”
In the port city of Darien in Mackintosh County—population just over 1,500—the nonprofit has established itself in the area, focusing on the education and empowerment of black families and landowners in the surrounding area.
This work has involved addressing the effects of climate change, from extreme droughts and extreme heat leading to crop losses, to more powerful and frequent tropical storms and hurricanes forcing people to evacuate.
“People lost their homes and had to move because they couldn’t repair their homes after a flood or after trees fell on their property,” says Peterson. “As a result of these environmental factors, a lot of families are being hurt because if they had to evacuate, many of them wouldn’t be able to leave. As more and more severe weather comes along, it’s going to be bad for our region, especially for people here on the coast.”
While the McIntosh SEED program began focusing on the specific needs of the Coastal County in 1998, Peterson and Executive Director John Littles always envisioned expanding its work to uplift more communities across the Deep South.
“We didn’t want to get rid of the ‘crabs in a basket’ syndrome where one person comes out and one stretches out and the other one pulls them back down again,” Peterson says. “We wanted to link arms and pull in as many marginalized people and communities as possible, and we still operate by that guiding principle.”
As part of their early work with agricultural producers and landowners, Littles and Peterson traveled the Deep South throughout Georgia, Mississippi, and Alabama. They began to notice how different forest lands looked in the richer, predominantly white areas compared to the poorer, predominantly black communities.
While researching land management resources available to the landowners McIntosh SEED was already working with, Littles realized that it wasn’t just a lack of awareness that contributed to land degradation in BIPOC communities; It was also cultural.
“In our society, property was seen as a liability rather than an asset,” Littles explains. “We also learned that a lot of injustice was going on in our community; people would come in and not give the right price for our lumber, or the right space, and they would destroy the landscape when they cut the wood. It wasn’t a good look to our community or the environment.”
Over the past decade, McIntosh SEED has partnered with the Conservation Fund to identify opportunities for sustainable land management through land protection that benefits nature and its neighboring communities.
“Losing forests for development and converting them out of forests releases significant amounts of carbon,” says Evan Smith, senior vice president of Conservation Ventures. “This contributes to climate change, and also reduces the Earth’s ability to respond and adapt to climate change.”
In the South, addressing injustices in black and brown communities is key.
“It’s kind of the double effect of the US South, as one of the largest sources of carbon emissions in the US, but also because of forest loss, which is an incredibly powerful tool for slowing climate change,” Smith explains. “And then at the same time, these populations are uniquely vulnerable to displacement and impact due to climate change.”
As the Conservation Fund began exploring opportunities in the South, it recognized McIntosh SEED’s efforts to accommodate the intersection of race, environment, and community. McIntosh SEED grassroots programs are truly designed to empower local communities, help them understand and address environmental impacts on their homes, access natural resources, and educate and empower landowners with whatever tools they may need on their property journeys.
“When people are low, there are so many issues that they don’t care about because they have so many other challenges,” Littles explains. “So it starts with education about climate – how does it affect them, their land and society, but also how do we as landowners play a role in climate change and become better stewards of it?”
In the Community Forest, Peterson commands the workshop attendees’ attention and speaks directly to the young attendees about their responsibility to their family’s land once it is passed on. They seem united with the forest, acknowledging its benefits and value and the importance of preserving the land for future generations.
“Traditionally, we don’t have a lot of black forest specialists,” Peterson says. “We want to build forests, we want to introduce our children to it so they can pursue it as an option for future action if they decide to, but for that to happen they have to have this connection to the land.”
Peterson’s commitment to uplifting families and communities stems from her ancestors, who instilled in her an innate desire to serve others. “She spoke to us about the importance of sharing,” recalls her great-grandmother, who would carefully break a stick of gum into pieces just enough to share with Peterson and her twelve cousins. This story will be told at family gatherings for generations as a reminder to always give back, no matter how much the family has.
“I am not going to stay here forever,” Peterson says, “to be able to pass on this knowledge assures me that long after I am gone, the land will be held by future generations. My great-grandfather was a wood pulp business, and whatever my family owns is the result of his hard work.” Nails on his hands, as well as many other families whose ancestors had nails on their hands and scars on their backs – they did this in order to be able to have this land. It is up to us to continue their legacy.”
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Eric Hollister Williams
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