It may cliché, but for much of Kentucky’s history, it was fair to say that most citizens couldn’t see the forest for the trees.
The state’s first forester, for example, wrote a century ago that most people “wondered why anyone should be concerned about the forests.” It was considered such a never-ending resource back then that even massive wildfires – which burned a half-million acres alone in 1880 – could not sway public opinion.
About 60 years ago, however, it became clear that more needed to be done to protect one of our most important natural resources. That led to the first formal survey to see just what we had across the commonwealth.
There have been periodic updates since then, and the most recent was provided last week. In short, the news is good, with figures showing that Mother Nature produces about twice as much wood as we take each year.
Overall, Kentucky has 25 million total acres, and right at half – 12.4 million – are forests, a figure that has largely held steady since the 1950s. Nearly 90 percent of these trees are on private property, while most of the remainder is maintained by the federal government and the state.
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 between 1954 and 1956.
There are now believed to be about seven billion trees in Kentucky. That’s one for every person in the world or 1,600 for each Kentuckian. If you just count the larger trees – those at least five inches in diameter several feet above the ground – we have nearly 25 billion cubic feet of wood volume, the equivalent of more than 660 Empire State buildings.
The tulip (or yellow) poplar is both the state’s official tree – though it was the Kentucky coffeetree for a time – and our top wood producer. In terms of sheer numbers, however, there are more red and sugar maples; combined, these two species make up 21.5 percent of all the trees in the state.
Still, only Florida has a greater diversity of hardwood trees, and we’re also second nationally in wood production, which in turn is the foundation of 3,500 companies and more than 30,000 jobs. This industry generates about $4.5 billion in revenue each year.
One of the unfortunate problems our forests routinely face is wildfires. Nearly 700 have been reported between January and early this month, and they burned more than 14,000 acres. On the bright side, that pace is far behind what we saw between 1999 and 2001, when at least 133,000 acres burned in each of those three years.
Insects like the emerald ash borer are responsible for significant damage as well. They were first discovered in the United States just a decade ago, in Michigan, but they have since spread to many other states. They were first found in Kentucky in 2009, but appear to be mostly in the northern and central sections of the state. To halt their spread, forest officials warn against transporting such things as firewood.
Overall, Kentucky has certainly been blessed when it comes to our forests, but unlike our ancestors a century or two ago, we know that this good fortune will not last if we don’t take care of them. Keeping them strong has to remain a priority for generations to come.