New WWF Initiative Supports Black Land Ownership

Image: Tiffany Bailey via Wikimedia Commons

By Ashira Morris, ODP Staff Writer

Heirs’ property is a type of land ownership whereby property is passed down without a will, and it’s one of the main reasons Black families in the US are losing their land. But the Mobile Basin Heirs’ Property Support Initiative announced yesterday could help families in Mississippi’s Mobile Bay watershed protect and keep their land by legally clarifying ownership. The new, two-year initiative aims to build generational wealth for historically underserved families while promoting sustainably managed forestland. The project is a collaboration between the Center for Heirs’ Property Preservation (CHPP) and the Mississippi Center for Justice, with support from the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and Kimberly-Clark. 


Why This Matters: The initiative is an intersectional approach to ensuring people can keep inherited family land and protect the local forests. Forests in the Mobile Bay region face threats to biodiversity due to human development, and heirs’ property owners are more vulnerable to losing their land to those who want to build or harvest timber from it. The impacts of forest loss can ripple beyond trees and harm freshwater ecosystems and drinking water sources too. As Jennie L. Stephens, the Chief Executive Officer of CHPP put it: “Heirs’ property impacts everyone because once the land is lost, the community is impacted.”


Of the many harsh lessons learned by Hurricane Katrina, when hurricanes and floods strike heirs’ property, it can be incredibly difficult for residents to receive aid because federal programs almost always require clear proof of title. 


Property Problems

While heirs’ property is common for Black families on rural land in the South, it’s an issue that extends beyond these parameters. There are urban instances as well, and Stephens hopes to replicate the model with Native Americans and people in Appalachia facing similar issues with land ownership. 


The collaborative initiative is based on a model created and implemented by CHPP, which has already helped families resolve more than 275 titles. It will provide landowners with legal support, forestry education, and access to funding for forest conservation


Forestland in the South Under Pressure: Almost 90% of forestland in the Southern US is privately owned, increasingly by people who don’t live there. According to a recent study in the Journal of Forestry, this makes these forests “particularly susceptible to fragmentation and land-use conversion.” An estimated 11-23 million acres of forestland will be lost to other land use by 2060, according to The Southern Forest Futures Project, but prioritizing forest protection and ensuring forests are resilient to fragmentation can help.

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