- Associated Press - Sunday, October 11, 2015

BEAUFORT, S.C. (AP) - Inez Miller tromps through the underbrush and pluff mud to her favorite spot on land that’s been in her family since 1891 on St. Helena Island.

As the tiny fiddler crabs scatter to their holes to avoid her rubber boots, she looks toward a small island just beyond the moss hanging from the live oaks. To the left is bright green marshland that at high tide brings a bounty of fish and crabs for her to catch.

As the crunching of her steps on the brush halts, only the bird songs remain. A stillness settles in.

It’s a view and a peacefulness she and her family want to save. A new forestry program they have joined just might help.

Miller has undergone training through the Sustainable Forestry Program with the Center for Heirs’ Property Preservation, based in Charleston. Not only is her family planning to grow timber to sell, but she is spreading the word throughout communities of black-owned properties in Beaufort County about the income potential of their land.



The forestry program is among several opportunities being presented in a series of community meetings sponsored by the heirs center, the Coastal Conservation League and local advocacy groups.

Another program helps people farm their land to earn income.

Some families have also found their own way to earning money off their property, leasing it to developers for timeshares and other ventures.

Regardless of the program, the overall goal is the same.

“We want families to keep ownership of their properties,” said heirs center staff attorney Hope Watson during a gathering of heirs’ property owners last month on St. Helena Island. “We don’t want the land to be a burden to you.”

A LEGACY OF TREES

As Miller stands with her back to the marsh, she points to a dense tangle of trees and brush that one day will host 20 or more acres of longleaf pine.

With help from the nonprofit Centers for Heirs’ Property Preservation, she has marked off the boundaries and discussed a management plan with foresters. The next step is to set up a controlled burn to clear the brush to make way for the plantings. The family plans to preserve the live oaks, magnolias and other hardwoods.

The heirs center started the program about two years ago on a trial basis and has received a grant to extend it for three more years, says Tish Lynn, the center’s resource development coordinator. So far, four Beaufort County property owners have completed the first program and four more have joined.

Along with allowing owners to earn money off their land, it prevents them from being taken advantage of by timber companies that make low-ball offers to cut trees, Lynn says. The program matches owners with professional foresters who can determine the value of the timber. All of the services are free.

Miller knows it will take 10 to 12 years before the harvest, but she and her family are committed to keeping the property for the next generation.

“My children will reap the benefit,” she says. “We’re leaving the tree-planting process as a legacy for them to carry on.”

PRESERVING THE FAMILY FARM

York Glover tills the rich dirt on his St. Helena Island land much like his father did before him and his grandfather before him.

The land on Oaks Plantation Road has been passed down through Glover’s family since the end of the Civil War. As a kid, Glover and his nine siblings picked tomatoes on their parents’ farm. And as an adult, Glover raised hogs on the property, paying for his children’s college education.

“My great-grandparents saw the value of property and purchased the land,” he said. “So if they did that, the least we can do as a family is keep it.”

A new farm program is helping African Americans not only keep their property, but also preserve their families’ farming heritage.

As a member of the Gullah Farmers Cooperative, Glover will soon plant his winter crop of broccoli, collards and cabbage. The produce will be served up to students in school cafeterias across Beaufort, Jasper and Colleton counties. The program began last year, thanks to federal grants that paid for equipment to process and clean the vegetables before they hit students’ lunch trays.

Glover and other cooperative members are also considering participating in a program sponsored by the Coastal Conservation League, a nonprofit environmental group. Called GrowFood Carolina, the program markets crops for small farmers within a 120-mile radius of its hub in Charleston. The program packages and sells the products to grocers and restaurants, acting as a middleman so farmers can just focus on growing, said Kate Parks Schaefer, the league’s south coast office director.

While Glover, a retired Clemson University extension agent, doesn’t need the extra income, he knows other local families do. And getting it could mean the difference between them keeping their family land or being forced to sell it.

“It’s something a lot of farmers in the community could do,” Glover says. “It’s just a matter of getting some of the production in place.”

LEASING INSTEAD OF SELLING

A compound of timeshare buildings with bright blue metal roofs and awnings along Skull Creek stand as a testament to a Hilton Head Island family’s decision to hang onto ancestral land.

The Barnwells have owned property on Squire Pope Road for 125 years, and in 2002, they signed a 45-year lease with Bluewater Resort and Marina development.

While leasing the waterfront land has meant it was developed, it also meant that it stayed in the family.

The deal should continue to bring in income for future generations, said Tom Barnwell, a family member who also rents out apartments and mobile homes on former heirs’ property he owns nearby.

Before the timeshare deal, the family formed a limited liability corporation and spent months clearing the title to the land, which had been passed down without a will. They outlined goals and researched how they could best use the land based on the town’s zoning restrictions.

The Barnwells’ historical ties to the area made them want to pass down the property to future generations, Barnwell said.

The rooms where fishermen and visitors could stay the night are gone, replaced by a dance floor. But the towering live oaks remain.

And so does the dazzling view of marsh and creek that would make any developer drool.

The family envisions a waterfront seafood restaurant on the property, said Palmer Simmons, grandson of Charles Simmons Sr. They haven’t decided whether to take on the venture themselves or form a partnership with a restaurant developer.

But there is one thing they have decided, Simmons says.

“The property will never be for sale.”

“I have a genealogy that ties me to this area,” he said. “It’s part of a culture that I cherish.”

The Simmonses are another longtime native-island family who have no interest in selling prime waterfront property, and plan to continue to use it to generate income.

They own the Simmons Fishing Camp along Broad Creek, where Charles Simmons Sr. ran the ferry for islanders to get to and from the mainland before the bridge was constructed in 1956.

Just before the bridge, he built the current fishing camp building, an unassuming wooden structure with dark green walls and a red tin roof. It has served for generations as a gathering spot for native islanders.

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Information from: The Island Packet, https://www.islandpacket.com

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