Fighting Black Land Loss Helps Birds, Too

Efforts to reform heirs' property laws are expanding access to conservation as a tool to build wealth for historically disadvantaged farmers.
Two men—the one on the left in a green shirt and the other in a black shirt—smile at the camera and stand in front of a green tractor. Behind the tractor is a wagon filled with birders. More birders walk in the green field behind the wagon.
Christopher Joe (left) and his brother Cornelius Joe II shepherd birders through farm fields that have been in their family since the early 1900s. Photo: Mike Fernandez/Audubon

The Joe family was gathered at Arthur and Queen Ester Joe’s home in Newbern, Alabama, on a summer evening in the early 1970s when the children asked about the white figures standing outside. Queen Ester told them not to worry as she rushed them to the back of the house. Draped in white robes, like a nightmare ripped from a Southern dreamscape, Ku Klux Klan members stood idly by the mailbox, says the couple’s grandson Christopher Joe, who heard the story from a cousin who was there that day.

It wasn’t the first attempt to scare the Joe family off of their 200-acre farm, and it wouldn’t be the last. Weeks after the Klan’s display, their home and those of two other nearby Black farmers were burned to the ground. But the Joes rebuilt and remained. Today they raise Angus cattle there and people pay to hunt on the land. Through a partnership with Alabama Audubon, the Joes also host birding tours that draw visitors in search of Swallow-tailed Kites, Wood Storks, and Painted Buntings. As far as Christopher Joe can tell, it’s the only Black-owned birding business in Alabama.

The Joe family’s determination to face down the Klan and stay on the land—and its success on the property today—is thanks in part to decisions made decades prior, Christopher says. Arthur and his siblings had pooled their money to purchase the plot in the early 1900s, eventually deeding it to the next generation when they came of age to work the land in the 1970s.

By formally transferring the land, the Joes avoided legal vulnerabilities that plague other Black landowners and farmers today. When someone dies without a formal estate plan, their land becomes what’s known as heirs’ property. Their descendants inherit a share in the land and the right to use it, but they lack a clear title. As generations pass, this tenuous ownership becomes increasingly fragmented, sometimes among dozens of heirs. Any of these shareholders—or a real estate speculator who buys their share—can file a court petition and force a sale of the entire property, often for much less than it’s worth. Because Black Americans historically had limited access to legal resources, 60 percent of their land is heirs’ property today, per one estimate. Manipulation of loopholes in the state laws governing these situations is a major cause of involuntary Black land loss.

Heirs’ property ownership isn’t limited to Black families—or to farmland—but it is especially prevalent among them, and it’s part of a deeper history of dispossession. Between the dawn of post–Civil War Reconstruction and 1920, the Homestead Act allowed for Black Americans to acquire about 19 million acres, around 2 percent of the operational farmland at the time. However, domestic terrorist groups like the Klan, government loan discrimination, and lax heirs’ property laws forced the loss of millions of those acres. Today Black American farmers own less than 1 percent of all U.S. farmland.

Now activists and policymakers are working to reform heirs’ property laws and tear down other barriers that make it harder for Black farmers to generate wealth from their own land. Righting these historical wrongs will not only benefit those who own the land, advocates say, but also help make their farms and forests more welcoming to wildlife.

“Once this land is lost, everything––be it human or bird––that uses this land, they’re in jeopardy,” says Jennie Stephens, chief executive officer at the Center for Heirs’ Property Preservation (CHPP), a nonprofit that promotes sustainable forestry to help heirs’ property holders retain their land and build generational wealth. “If the land is lost, and now they’re putting up buildings, then what has happened to that species?”

Heirs’ property laws also restrict what those who inherit land can do with it, denying them assistance that other farmers receive. Without a clear title, landowners have difficulty accessing loans and disaster relief. The same goes for conservation programs through the federal farm bill that connect farmers with experts and funding to improve habitat for waterfowl, grassland birds, and other wildlife. Faced with discrimination, Black and Indigenous farmers were often relegated to buying plots that were undesirable for agriculture, but that same land often provided valuable habitat. When shareholders can’t participate in conservation programs, it’s a big missed opportunity for them and for wildlife, says John Schelhas, a research forester at the U.S. Forest Service. “Heirs’ property in particular is often located in wetlands or coastal areas,” he says.

Heirs’ property laws also restrict what those who inherit land can do with it, denying them assistance that other farmers receive.

Efforts are underway to redress these systemic injustices. At the state level, an array of advocates—lawyers, civil rights activists, and conservation groups such as Audubon North Carolina—are calling for wider adoption of the Uniform Partition of Heirs’ Property Act, which makes it easier for shareholders to retain land, prevent forced sales, and get a fair value if they sell. Nineteen states and territories have approved a version of the bill. After a 2018 change in the farm bill, heirs’ property owners in states that pass the act have an easier pathway to take part in federal conservation programs. That could make possible more partnerships, such as one in South Carolina, which passed the act in 2016. There, CHPP is helping heirs’ property owners tap into funding to restore longleaf pine forests that support the declining Northern Bobwhite and endangered Red-cockaded Woodpecker.

The legislation is part of a broader push to help historically disadvantaged farmers. Half of $10.4 billion in agricultural aid under the Biden administration’s American Rescue Plan will go to them. Democrats in Congress have also filed legislation to establish a land grant program for Black farmers, create a farm conservation corps for socially disadvantaged communities, and provide loans to heirs’ property holders to help offset legal fees and other costs to solidify ownership. And in July the USDA announced $67 million in new funding for heirs’ property owners to cover those costs.

A combination of these reforms has the potential to put more Black landowners in a position to improve and manage their property and the habitat on it, like the Joes have done. Christopher Joe says he wants to see more federal funding to help Black farmers retain their land and put it to work in a sustainable way. “Even if you don’t farm the land, you can do something with the land where it will make money for you,” he says. “There’s not anything that I’m doing that can’t be duplicated on someone else’s property.”

This story originally ran in the Fall 2021 issue as “Inherit the Earth.”​ To receive our print magazine, become a member by making a donation today.