It has been nearly 60 years since Kentucky undertook its first comprehensive assessment of what is easily the Commonwealth’s most abundant natural resource: Our forests.
Since then, four other surveys have taken place, with the most recent completed in 2004. Last spring, state and federal forestry officials publicly unveiled what they found.
Not surprisingly, a lot has changed over the years. Nearly half of the state is still wooded, but 729,000 acres have been lost since 1988, the year of the previous survey. That’s more than 1,000 square miles, or nearly one-and-a-half times the size of Pike County, our state’s largest.
While that is an alarming statistic, it should be noted that less land does not mean less trees. In fact, between those surveys, the number of live trees in Kentucky increased by more than a fourth.
Foresters estimate that there are about 800 million red maple trees, followed by 600 million sugar maple and 400 million yellow poplars. Given those numbers, it shouldn’t be surprising to find out that Kentucky is second in the nation in hardwood production.
The yellow poplar has certainly gained traction in the state. In 1952, it made up just six percent of commercial forested area, but now stands at 13 percent. When measuring cubic feet of wood, it and the white oak are at the top of the list.
Overall, Kentucky boasts 115 different species of trees. We have the nation’s largest American sycamore – with a circumference of 36 feet – and our tallest tree, a yellow poplar in McCreary County, stands 168 feet tall. That’s still 200 feet shorter than the world’s tallest, a California redwood.
The report found that most of Kentucky’s 12 million acres of forests are in private hands, with local, state and federal governments overseeing about one million acres.
The report also noted some interesting facts. For example, 3,500 companies depend on our trees, and they employ more than 30,000 Kentuckians. Timber sales and the products derived from them generate more than $4.5 billion annually.
On a smaller, but still interesting scale, Kentucky had 230 Christmas tree farms in 2002, with 123 of those established enough to harvest trees.
There were also 38 maple syrup farms that year, and they produced 416 gallons, or nearly 10 percent of the South’s maple syrup production.
On a more serious note, the Kentucky Division of Forestry warned that forest fires remain a significant problem in the state. In 2001, the worst year for fires this decade, almost 179,000 acres burned. Between January and April this year, more than 18,000 acres were lost.
Unfortunately, nearly every acre lost to fire is due to manmade causes, with more than half of the fires attributable to arson. Forestry officials encourage Kentuckians to call their local authorities, the Kentucky State Police or 1-800-27-ARSON if they have knowledge of an intentionally set forest fire.
Kentucky has made strides in recent years in preserving this irreplaceable resource. The General Assembly has dedicated tens of millions of dollars to conservation efforts and, just this year, promoted activities like adventure tourism that help make it easier to maintain what we have. We will undoubtedly do much more by the time the next survey of our forests is prepared.
As always, please feel free to contact me if you have any questions or concerns involving this issue or any other tied to state government. I can be reached by writing to Room 351C, Capitol Annex, 702 Capitol Avenue, Frankfort, KY 40601.
You can also leave a message for me or for any legislator at 800-372-7181. For the deaf or hard of hearing, the number is 800-896-0305.
I hope to hear from you soon.
Representative Rick Rand