By Tyrah Ward Littles

In August 2023, McIntosh SEED was the host site for the Sustainable Forestry and African American Land Retention Network (SFLR) Tenth Anniversary Landowner Conference in Brunswick, GA. For three days, it was exhilarating to celebrate the accomplishments of our landowners and partners in this unique collaboration supporting African American forest owners.

We were honored that US Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack chose our conference to announce the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Forest Service’s $150 million commitment to assist underserved and small-acreage forest landowners. I was also deeply touched by the presentations made by our landowners, in a safe space where they were free to share their experiences, practices they have or are trying to implement, the significance of the land to their families—and to voice their concerns. Secretary Vilsack and all of us witnessed first-hand how the investments, some made a decade ago, have had a profound impact.

The conference allowed us to network with and express our appreciation for our funding and supporting partners, including the USDA’s Farm Service Agency, the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), state conservationists, leaders from the U.S. Endowment for Forestry and Communities, the JPB Foundation, and others. It also served as a celebration of the region’s rich and diverse African American culture. One of my favorite events was Gullah Rice Night, with a feast that included delicious rice dishes featuring peas, chicken, turkey, and locally harvested seafood.

Bringing the more than 200 attendees together was hard work, yet I—and I’m certain others—left the conference feeling refreshed and inspired. While McIntosh SEED and our seven other SFLR network partners have made great strides, there is still so much more we can do. We need to continue to put our boots on the ground and find out how can we help more landowners, connecting them to the resources they need to protect their assets and maintain and sustain their deep ties to their land.

One priority for me is engaging the next generation. This means reaching out to high schools and colleges, and engaging with programs such as 4H or Future Farmers of America. We want to show students the wealth of the opportunities in forestry and agriculture available to them, with or without a college education. We want to help them set goals for the future, build some motivation for school work, and build the skills that foster success after graduation.

In November, we did our first career day tour with local high school students. We visited sites in three counties, meeting with representatives from the local Farm Service Agency, Georgia Forestry Commission, registered foresters, wildland firefighters, and NRCS. We also toured a local sawmill and planer mill. It was amazing to see how the students responded to their experiences. Maybe some of them will be the biologists, foresters, and arborists of tomorrow.

We are also focused on the next generation of potential landowners—those interested in buying property for themselves and their families, to create their own legacy of sustainability and security. Along with this comes the continuing development of new partners, locally and throughout the region, to provide not only financial assistance but one-on-one help in making forest land ownership a reality.

I challenge myself every day to do more to impact someone’s life in the most positive way. I know the tasks at hand, but I want to exceed even my own expectations and broaden the scope of my responsibilities. I want to continue to feel the energy derived from my experience with the conference landowners, network partners, and supporters into guiding more African Americans—young and old—toward realizing their dream of securing and preserving their property, now and for generations to come.

By Tyrah Ward Littles, Outreach Manager, McIntosh Sustainable Environment and Economic Development (SEED)