While working with CHPP, he created a new division for the organization focused on helping families put their land to use through sustainable forestland management plans and timber harvesting.
“We try to teach the landowners we work with to figure out how to use your land to make money off of it and don’t be cheated by all these people coming by and offering you pennies on the dollar for your land, or for your timber, where you’re getting just a fraction of what it’s really worth,” he said. “We want people to work with professionals to figure out what it’s really worth, but most importantly to talk to your family and encourage the whole family to do the right thing with the land and not to take what someone offers you just because they show up with a little bit of money.”
He shared stories of landowners with whom he consulted on land utilization. “I was sitting in a room talking to landowners. This lady said, ‘I have to sell my land because I can’t afford the taxes.’ I asked, ‘How much are your taxes?’ She said, ‘Thirty-three dollars a year.’” The same woman also shared that she owned 30 acres. After Cook walked her through back-of-the-envelope estimates of what she might earn from sustainable timber harvesting, she proclaimed, “I can pay my taxes for the rest of my life, I can fix my house, and I can put money in the bank!”
Then there was a family that had been offered $100,000 by a forester for harvesting timber on their land. After working with a consulting forester from the Center for Heirs’ Property Preservation, they learned that their timber was worth over $400,000, and that they were also eligible for another $150,000 in Farm Bill funding to replant seedlings that the next generation would be able to harvest.
Educating landowners isn’t as simple as setting up a meeting and waiting for people to come, he said. Building trust with rural landowners can be challenging, he said; especially in a context of historic exploitation. “I can’t walk up to you as a landowner and say, ‘I’m Sam, I’m from this nonprofit and I’m here to help you manage your land.’ It doesn’t work. I have to get invited to your church, to your home, to your reunion — but first, I have to spend some time getting to know you, as an individual. Then maybe we can talk about the land. Every landowner I meet starts out by lying about how much land they have and where it is. They don’t want to risk losing it.”
Cook’s reflections resonated with F&ES students. “I appreciated that he spoke to issues of communicating with landowners,” said Rob Turnbull ’19 M.F. “Forestry is fundamentally a business of relationships and it’s really important to learn sensitivity when working with people.”
In addition to the Forest Forum lecture, Cook spent several days on campus meeting with students and faculty from across the university discussing forestry as well as his experience as an African-American man in the forestry industry and the academy.
“He brought an informed, experiential account of the discipline we study,” said Thomas Easley, assistant dean of community and inclusion at F&ES. “It was great for the students, staff, and faculty to engage with a leader in forestry that shared his expertise as well as his journey through his identity."