January 14, 2019 |Emily Korest | Forests

McSEED Community Forest: Combining Sustainable Forestry With Economic Development

Community forests are forests that are locally owned and controlled, with various uses depending on the social, economic and recreational needs of the surrounding community. Establishing community forests offers incredible opportunities for local collaboration, economic gain, environmental protection, and addressing the economic and social needs of some of our nation’s most underserved communities. One example of a community forest that The Conservation Fund helped start is McSEED Community Forest in the coastal plain of southern Georgia.

Left: Photo by McIntosh SEED. Right: Photo by Steve Orr.

In 2011, the Fund purchased 1,149 acres of timberland and later sold the property in 2015 to McIntosh County Sustainable Environment and Economic Development (McSEED), a local African-American led community nonprofit and long-term partner of the Fund, for McSEED to create the state’s first community forest.

“It’s one of a handful of our land acquisition projects that has actually advanced social justice by returning land to people whose ancestors were a big part of the reason that forest is still there. It’s also a wealth creation project by generating wealth for the organization and the community itself. It’s adding value by serving as a platform or a venue for landowners to learn about conservation programs and to actually get access to them.”

- Mikki Sager, Vice President and Director of Resourceful Communities, The Conservation Fund

Mikki Sager,Vice President and Director of Resourceful Communities, The Conservation Fund (center) is joined by Cheryl Peterson, Assistant Managing Director of McIntosh SEED (left) and John Littles, Executive Director of McIntosh Seed (right). Photo by Steve Orr.

A case study and management plan were created by two Duke University masters students as McSEED was purchasing the property. The management plan provided an in-depth environmental analysis of the land, and community surveys were carried out by McSEED and the students to determine best uses for the forest. The study found that the property has a wide diversity of flora and fauna due to its many habitats—from pine forests and hardwood uplands to the branching creek that runs through the property and the wetland regions that surround it. Significant game species like wild turkey, white-tailed deer and squirrel live on the property, as well as bobcats and cottonmouth snakes. So many bird species call the forest home that one of the best designated recreational uses for the property was deemed to be birding.

Photos by Steve Orr.

McSEED has found diverse uses for the property, starting by establishing sustainable forestry practices on the land—protecting it as natural space and a recreational asset while also creating economic gains for the organization and the community it serves. Along with these sustainable forestry practices, McSEED has developed sustainable forestry education and training opportunities for community members and landowners, chiefly African-American landowners in the region.

Danielle Atkins of the Georgia Forestry Commission (right) leads a local landowner through tree measuring activity. Photo by McIntosh SEED.

In addition to sustainable forestry, McSEED is working to restore longleaf pine and its associated habitat on appropriate parts of the land. Longleaf pine forests are one of the most endangered ecosystems in the United States today—once dominating the southeastern U.S. they have been reduced to less than 5% of their pre-European settlement range. This decrease in lands is due to development, historical lack of reforestation, and more recently, reforestation to the industry standard of loblolly pine.

John Littles and Cheryl Peterson stand in front of Pitts-Dunwoody Lane, named in honor of former Board members Caroline Pitts and Mary Dunwoody. McIntosh SEED has recognized Board members and volunteers who contributed to making the organization what it is today by naming roads after them. Photo by Steve Orr.

“The community forest gives residents opportunities to use their land for economic benefit while also being socially conscious about implementing good forestry management practices to conserve the environment. We’ve been finding the balance between those two… a place you can manage a forest and maintain a healthy environment… a place where the ecosystem can thrive that also creates wealth for these families.”

- Cheryl Peterson, Assistant Managing Director of McIntosh SEED

“The community forest has been an asset for us to use as an educational tool. Landowners, especially minority landowners, may have been less engaged with the conservation effort but we’ve been able to provide hands-on field experience and training on the site. It’s been a benefit for community members.”

- John Littles, Executive Director of McIntosh Seed

The benefits to the community of the McSEED Community Forest go beyond sustainable forestry. McSEED’s protection of this forest also allows for wetland restoration, which helps to protect water quality in the region. Students from colleges and universities have visited to use the land as a living educational tool. The lands, which were previously closed to the public, have increased outdoor recreational opportunities for community members to hike, hunt, and bird-watch. The wetlands on the property are also culturally significant as they provide ideal habitat for cultivating sweetgrass, which is being lost due to development. It is used to make the distinctive sweetgrass baskets of the Gullah people, descendants of enslaved West Africans with a distinct language who live in the low country of Georgia and South Carolina.

Photo by Liz West/Flickr.

McIntosh SEED’s efforts on this property have brought huge benefits to the community in surrounding counties, preserving the ecosystem and landscape while also creating economic benefits.

“The ownership and conservation opportunities were a major goal for this project. McIntosh SEED has access to the land, they’re harvesting timber and subsequently have started restoration of longleaf pine which is important from a species standpoint. These are wonderful benefits. Another major benefit is for current landowners, and those who might want to get into the business and have small plots of land, to learn sustainable forestry management. It helps landowners manage an asset base that they can monetize and do all the other wonderful things they aim to do in return.”

- Andrew Schock, Georgia State Director, The Conservation Fund

Andrew Schock, Georgia State Director, The Conservation Fund (left) and John LIttles (right) walk through the McSEED Community Forest. Photo by Steve Orr.