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It may be cliché, but for much of Kentucky’s history, it was fair to say most citizens literally 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 our most important natural resource needed protection, which led to the first formal survey to see just what we had in 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 Mother Nature producing about twice as much wood as we consume each year.
Overall, Kentucky has 25 million total acres, and right at half – 12.4 million – are forests, a figure that has held steady since the 1950s. Nearly 90 percent of these trees are on private property; most of the rest are on land maintained by the federal and state governments.
Kentucky began preservation in 1919, when a land and coal company donated 3,700 acres in Harlan County. Most of our 43,000 preserved acres, however, were deeded by the federal government from 1954-56.
There are now believed to be about 7 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 5 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 the state’s official tree 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.
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.
Wildfires are the biggest enemy. Nearly 700 wildfires were reported from January to early August, and burned more than 14,000 acres. On the bright side, that pace is far behind what we experienced between 1999 and 2001, when at least 133,000 acres burned in each of those three years.
Damage also is caused by insects, such as the emerald ash borer. First discovered in Michigan just a decade ago, they have spread to many other states and were found in Kentucky in 2009 – mostly in the northern and central portions of the state. To halt their spread, forest officials warn against transporting such things as firewood.
Overall, Kentucky has 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 it. Keeping our forests strong has to remain a priority for generations to come.
Rick Rand, D-Bedford, represents the 47th House District in the Kentucky General Assembly. He may be reached by writing to Room 351C, Capitol Annex, 702 Capitol Avenue, Frankfort, KY 40601, or leave a message at (800) 372-7181 – TTY (800) 896-0305.