SAF Celebrates Black History Month

February 25, 2022

In coordination with our Diversity and Inclusion Policy, the Society of American Foresters (SAF) is committed to promoting an environment designed to embrace our differences in which all community members are welcomed and valued, creating diversity and inclusion in our leadership, membership, programs, and activities. As we move forward in 2022, SAF is making an intentional effort to be more inclusive in the way we celebrate community members and connect with those who value forests and their benefits. Broadening the awareness and engagement of our professionals helps to broaden the understanding and promotion of our profession. This can lead to new partnerships, learning, and business opportunities for our members. We are kickstarting these efforts with the celebration of Black History Month. The 2022 theme of Black Health and Wellness acknowledges the legacy of Black scholars and medical practitioners and accounts for the activities, rituals, and initiatives that Black communities have done to be well and stay healthy.

Today, health and wellness are commonly associated with access to green space, including tree-lined streets and urban parks. As you can read in a US Forest Service publication titled, “A Brief History of African Americans and Forests,” African Americans have long-held a connection to North American forests and played prominent roles as natural resource stewards. Their legacy is not often shared in the publicized story of US conservation and forestry, and this month is an important moment to dedicate time to expanding our history and celebrating Black leadership. We need to ask ourselves: what would the story of conservation and forestry look like if it were fully inclusive of everyone who has contributed to our profession, and what kind of positive impact can be gained from that representation?

African Americans were intimately involved in the management of US forests, from the earliest development of North American landscapes as enslaved people through to the prolific role that Black communities played in 20th century timber. In fact, in 1910, at the height of segregation and the establishment of the forestry profession, African American communities represented about twenty-five percent of all employees in the forest industry. At that time, there were 195 Black-owned timber companies and 111 Black foremen.

Despite this long history in the forest sector, systemic patterns have played out over the past century to limit outdoor access and opportunity for many Black communities. For instance: a legacy of redlining and housing segregation still shows its impacts today with far less tree canopy cover in historically Black neighborhoods. On public lands we see a wide racial disparity in National Forest visitation, stemming in part from a recent history of public lands segregation and cultural barriers. And, as you can read about in SAF’s Journal of Forestry, inequitable access to technical assistance as well as discrimination and insecure land tenure have limited opportunities for land investment and led to a greater loss in Black-owned lands and forests.

Yet, there is still so much to celebrate because of Black leaders who continue to overcome these barriers through demonstrations of compassion, resilience, and stewardship. In 2021, after four decades in natural resource management, Chief Randy Moore became the first African American to lead the US Forest Service in its 116-year history. Before him, Gloria Brown became the first African American woman to attain the rank of forest supervisor in the US Forest Service. Before her, Melody S. Mobley was hired in 1977 as the first Black female professional forester in the history of the US Forest Service.

There are also many organizations and networks seeking to make shifts in the success and representation of African American communities through their work. At the Center for Heirs’ Property, CEO Jennie L. Stephens is providing legal and forestry services to secure land tenure and build generational wealth for underserved communities. And with more than 100 leaders in 56 cities, Outdoor Afro is a network that celebrates and builds Black connections and leadership in nature through active conservation and outdoor recreation. And the Shelterwood Collective in Sonoma County, California is a Black, Indigenous, and LGBTQ-led community forest that is illustrating how restoration of their 900-acre forest is strengthened by their programming and workshops in antiracism, community health, and connections to land.

Sustainable, thoughtful stewardship of forests and rangelands is of mounting importance as we balance human needs with the biodiversity, wildfire, and climate change crises. Equity and justice will play a central role in our management decisions if we are to find holistic, long-term solutions. Alongside a national network of natural resource professionals, SAF shares a duty both in understanding how race has shaped our landscape and in taking action to ensure a more inclusive and equitable future.

"As Black History month comes to a close,” shares SAF CEO Terry Baker, “SAF is proud to share with our members the forestry accomplishments and black community interest in our forests and natural areas. Sharing this information is an intentional step in moving SAF and the profession forward. Part of our profession becoming more relevant is stepping outside of who we know and our existing connections to show that forestry and natural resource professionals are here to listen and engage communities from all backgrounds. This won’t be easy, but I encourage those who are willing to engage some of the organizations we have shared this month and those we will share in the future. Despite our differences, our strength lies in our ability to come together around the importance of our forests to communities.”