Land Cover, Tenure Characteristics, and Rural Well-Being in a Black Belt County

Land Cover, Tenure Characteristics, and Rural Well-Being in a Black Belt County

Janice F. Dyer (School of Forestry and Wildlife Sciences, Auburn University, Auburn, AL, USA), Luke Marzen (Department of Geology and Geography, Auburn University, Auburn, AL, USA) and Diane Hite (Department of Agricultural Economics and Rural Sociology, Auburn University, Auburn, AL, USA)
Copyright: © 2013 |Pages: 20
DOI: 10.4018/jagr.2013070102


Landownership is an important form of wealth, especially in a natural-resource dependent region such as the Black Belt of Alabama. We examine the connection between property ownership, land cover, and the well-being of communities in Macon County, Alabama. This study is an exploratory application of geographic information systems to integrate information from property tax assessment records, land cover data, and a well-being index based on census data. Research questions regarding the relationships between socioeconomic well-being, land tenure, and land cover were tested on rural parcels 50 acres or larger (N=1418). Test results reveal statistically significant relationships between socioeconomic conditions and absentee ownership (both out-of-state and out-of-county) and land cover type (in particular, evergreen forestland). Analyses of research findings offer insight to the cultural-ecological connections within the Black Belt and prompts exploration of the notion of space as political.
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Landownership – who owns the land, how they own it, and what they use it for – matters (Bliss, Sisock, & Birch, 1998). The relationship between land tenure and socioeconomic well-being has been explored in the literature for decades, especially as it relates to farm size and ownership type. Between 1995 and 2001, there was a series of three conferences titled “Who Owns America?” organized and hosted by the Land Tenure Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. The series grappled with issues related to land tenure, natural resource management, land use regulations, community security, cultural values and ethics, as well as issues related to specific minority groups. It is clear from examining the wide range of topics presented at those meetings that land – more particularly, who owns it and how it is used – has far reaching implications for communities and for society as a whole.

An individual’s right to own land is at the center of the United States’ tradition of independence. Cultural identity is tied to land and this identity shapes public action and defines topics of land use management (Batteau, 1982, 1983; Falk, 2004; Gartin, 2006). Land is a form of wealth, a status symbol, and a key to political empowerment. People assign different meanings to land and value it in varying ways, which leads to conflict. Land is a commodity – benefits and costs arise from practices or ways of using land and its natural resources (Platt, 2004). As the country’s population expands, the lines between urban and rural are blurred, and the finite nature of land becomes increasingly evident, leading to resource competition. Questions become increasingly pressing regarding how land is managed and who makes policy decisions. Central to land use debates is defending public interests without encroaching on or violating the rights of the landowner.

Land is a resource whose allocation and use have broader implications beyond physical boundaries. How that resource is managed impacts not only the landowner, but society as a whole; therefore, management of the resources is a matter of public interest (Platt, 2004; Gartin, 2006). Planning tools (such as zoning laws) used by institutions determine spatial patterns of land use, thus affecting social and political dynamics. Some believe the primary goal of public policy regarding rural land should be to preserve the productive capacity of natural resources in order to meet future needs (Platt, 2004). But whose future needs are public and private land managers seeking to meet? What actors are defining these needs, setting time tables to meet demands, and determining the most efficient (and economical) way to do so? Differences among actors in economic or ideological purposes at hand lead to conflict in both the production (physical creation) and construction (transformation that conveys symbolic meaning) of space (see Low, 1999). Local conflicts over landscapes can shed light on larger issues and provide insight to how people perceive and define space (Low, 1999; Gartin, 2006).

This study takes a close look at the role of landownership on a local scale, evaluating land cover, property characteristics, and ownership patterns of parcels in 10 rural census block groups. The census block groups are located in Macon County, Alabama, which is part of the Black Belt. The results reported here help frame future exploration of the question: What are the implications of land tenure, land cover, and well-being in one of the poorest regions in the U.S.?

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