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Kentucky's Forests

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By Rick Rand

Over the last 50 years, usually around the time fall colors are in full bloom, state and federal officials dedicate a week to highlight all of the products our forests provide.

Kentucky, of course, has been blessed more than most states.  Trees cover nearly half of our 25 million acres, and we are among the nation’s leaders – and first in the South – when it comes to hardwood production. 

Nearly 58,000 Kentucky jobs are directly dependent on our forests, which generate $14.6 billion for our economy, putting it on par with the state’s tourism industry.

An in-depth look at our forests by the University of Kentucky in 2013 showed that the biggest economic impact can be found in paper products, while wood used in such other areas as furniture and flooring was second.  There are 1,800 logging companies that get the wood to the market and 700 saw, paper and pulp mills that get the first cut, so to speak.

Over the past seven decades, foresters have conducted about a half-dozen surveys to determine the true size and diversity of our trees – and what we have gained or lost as the years go by.  

The most recent survey shows there to be about seven billion trees in Kentucky.  That’s roughly one for every person in the world or 1,600 for each Kentuckian. Red maple, sugar maple and yellow poplar are some of our most plentiful among the 115 species we have growing here.

If you just count the larger ones – those at least five inches in diameter several feet above the ground – we have nearly 25 billion cubic feet of wood volume, which is the equivalent of more than 660 Empire State buildings.  In fact, according to the UK study, timber volume is growing twice as fast as we’re removing it, a good sign that the resource will be there for many more years to come.

Kentucky first got into preserving forests in 1919, when a land and coal company donated 3,700 acres in Harlan County.  Much of what now stands at 43,000 preserved acres, however, was deeded to us by the federal government in the mid-1950s.

During much of Kentucky’s early history, conservation was not even remotely considered important by most citizens.  Early last century, Kentucky’s first forester wrote that most people “wondered why anyone should be concerned about the forests.”  Even massive wildfires – which burned a half-million acres alone in 1880 – were not enough to sway public opinion.

Although Forest Products Week is not designed to highlight the tourism impact of the trees themselves during the fall, it is worth noting that our state parks and the Kentucky Department of Travel and Tourism have kept up with the changing colors for more than 30 years.  If you’re curious about a particular region, they’ve developed a website – which runs through Nov. 11 – that can be found at www.kentuckytourism.com/seasons. You can also post your own fall photos in Instagram by tagging them #kycolorfall.