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There is a saying that the best time to plant a tree is 20 years ago, and the second best time is now.
Earlier this spring, state leaders joined with local Scouting organizations and utility companies to begin bringing that saying to life, and to do it in a way no other state has ever attempted. Their long-term goal, known as “Kentucky’s 20/20 Vision for Reforestation,” is to plant 20 million seedlings over the next 20 years.
While that figure may be hard to comprehend, there is no reason to believe it can’t be achieved. The state’s Division of Forestry says it has already planted or given away more than 447,000 seedlings since January.
Nearly half of Kentucky, 12.5 million acres altogether, is covered in forests, but there is plenty of room for more. State officials estimate that we could easily add another 2 million acres of trees.
As abundant as our trees are, we have learned not to take them for granted. It wasn’t always that way, however. A century ago, the state’s first forester wrote that many “wondered why anyone should be concerned about the forests.”
Even large wildfires like those occurring in 1880, which burned an area about the size of Pike County, didn’t have much impact on that mindset. For comparison, Kentucky lost about the same number of acres to wildfires between 2001 and 2010.
Recently, the University of Kentucky’s College of Agriculture, Food and Environment gave a report showing just how much of an economic impact our forest and wood industry has here.
With Kentucky one of the top three states in hardwood production and the leader in the South, the numbers are considerable. When measuring direct and indirect benefits, the industry supported 59,000 jobs last year and had an economic impact of nearly $13 billion.
From a monetary standpoint, paper production is the biggest component of the industry, with its economic impact last year nearly reaching $4 billion. Given that the average American uses about 750 pounds of paper products a year, that doesn’t come as much of a surprise.
Exports are another bright spot for Kentucky. The report says wood-related sales to other countries rose from $175 million in 2012 to $210 million in 2013, with Europe receiving about 40 percent of that total. Mexico and Canada were next at 28 percent, and Asia received much of the rest.
As much as our forests provide, the good news is that they are replenishing themselves faster than we are harvesting their timber. One study several years ago estimated the growth-to-removal ratio at more than two to one.
The trees don’t have to be cut down to benefit us, either. Earlier this year, for example, the city of Lexington released a study showing that its tree canopy provided about $30 million in benefits annually. Those range from limiting stormwater run-off to providing shade that reduces the need for air conditioning.
President Franklin Roosevelt had it right when he said, “forests are the lungs of our lands, purifying the air and giving fresh strength to our people.”
The more we take care of them, it seems, the more they benefit us.
Rick Rand, D-Bedford, represents the 47th House District in the Kentucky General Assembly. His address is Room 366B, Capitol Annex, 702 Capitol Avenue, Frankfort, KY 40601; or leave a message at (800) 372-7181 or (800) 896-0305.