Annual AGRICULTURE Issue
Supporting Sustainable Forests
When Cumberland County native Daryl Coffey moved to Texas in 1982, he found he missed Kentucky’s mix of seasons—and its trees.
“I’m a tree guy,” says Coffey, a criminal court judge in Ft. Worth. “I’ve always been a child of the woods and water.”
Coffey’s 2,400 acres in Cumberland and Metcalfe counties help him stay tapped into those roots.
Recipient of the 2003 Kentucky Division of Forestry’s Tree Farmer of the Year award, Coffey has completely converted his farm’s previous row-crop fields into tracts of trees.
In just five years, he says, the conversion is paying for itself—yielding more revenue than he would have earned from traditional crops. On the 55 acres that once grew tobacco and corn, for instance, Coffey has planted hardwood trees as buffers along riparian areas, areas that are near creeks and streams.
“The trees produce income, they benefit wildlife, and they help filter the water, air, and soil,” Coffey says.
Coffey returns to Kentucky frequently to plant new trees and to perform “timber stand improvements,” cutting back overcrowded, underdeveloped trees so the healthier ones can thrive.
While timber sales from the cuttings provide some income, Coffey won’t be ready to perform his first commercial harvest for another two to five years. When that time comes, though, he plans to cut selectively, leaving the best trees to ensure a sustainable forest for years to come.
Coffey’s kids sometimes tease him, wondering why, instead of a summer home in Mexico or a condo in Colorado, they have a tree farm in Kentucky.
“But I tell them, ‘That tree farm will take care of you one day,’” Coffey says, “if you take care of it.”
The Kentucky timber industry employs more than 30,000 people and contributes $4.5 billion annually in revenue to the state’s economy, according to the Kentucky Forest Industries Association.
Each year, Kentucky produces around 1 billion board feet of hardwood — predominantly red oak, white oak, and yellow poplar — and it consistently ranks in the top three hardwood lumber-producing states in the U.S.
And the market for Kentucky lumber is strong.
“It’s gone up 50 percent since I started six years ago,” says procurement forester Hagan Wonn of Kentucky Hardwood, a division of Somerset Wood Products in Somerset.
Longtime sawmill owner Sam Dunaway of Fordsville agrees: “It’s a cyclical business, but we’ve been in the high point of the cycle for the last year and a half or so.”
Kentucky hardwood—particularly the Appalachian hardwood from eastern Kentucky—is known for its quality, fine grain, and distinct color, says Bob Bauer, Kentucky Forest Industries Association executive director.
Due to the high demand, in the last 15 years many sawmills have been able to expand to do more drying and processing of the lumber themselves, increasing the value of the lumber they sell, Bauer says.
Higher quality lumber from Kentucky’s hardwood forests typically makes its way into molding for houses, furniture, and flooring, while lesser quality logs are often made into crossties for the railroad industry and shipping pallets.
Feeding the demand for hardwood are Kentucky’s 11.9 million acres of forest land, which cover 47 percent of the state. The vast majority, 89 percent, of Kentucky’s forests are owned by some 300,000 non-industrial, private landowners, according to the Division of Forestry.
It’s an ample resource, if properly cared for, says Leah MacSwords, director of the Division of Forestry.
“I believe Kentucky has enough forest lands to support our timber industry, with this caveat: they must be properly managed,” MacSwords says.
Long-term, active management plans like Coffey’s are key not only for the health of Kentucky’s forests, but also Kentucky’s timber industry, agrees Bauer.
After all, healthier forests mean better quality wood—and higher profits—for Kentucky’s landowners, loggers, and timber mills.
Yet too often, when landowners are ready to harvest timber on their land, they focus on the possibility of immediate cash flow, rather than the long-term health and value of their trees, Bauer says.
“A lot of landowners say, ‘My kids are going to college. I need to cut some trees to pay for their education.’ They haven’t thought ahead about what happens to their forest in 30 years,” Bauer says. “But the key is to educate them so that they realize if they put $5,000 into their forest to manage and thin the trees, then they’ll grow their trees three times as fast, the trees will be of better quality, and in 30 years that $5,000 investment could be worth a great deal more.”
Active forest management also helps trees resist threats such as disease, insects, and fire, Bauer adds.
The Division of Forestry recommends that landowners work with a forester to develop a stewardship plan for their lands before harvesting any timber (see sidebar).
Developing a plan with a forester lets landowners set priorities for what they want from their forests, Wonn says.
“Money is typically the driving factor. But there are many cases where there are other factors, too. Maybe they want to improve their wildlife habitat, or maybe they want to make their woods more park-like so their family can recreate in them,” Wonn says. “We try to work with the landowner to try a number of management approaches to achieve their objectives.”
When it came time to harvest timber on his Lawrence County farm, Jeff Burgess wanted a “balance between aesthetics and revenue.” He worked with consulting forester Patrick Cleary of Prestonsburg to leave a barrier of trees on the lower ridges of his land to mask where higher areas had been logged. They also left some big, acorn-producing oaks high on the ridge, Burgess says, to help ensure re-growth.
“This land has been in my family since the early 1800s,” says Burgess. “I knew this would be the only time I would harvest timber from it, so I felt obligated to do it right.”
“Harvesting timber isn’t like raising corn, something you do every year,” Bauer says. “To go from an oak seedling that’s just started to come up, to a top-grade veneer log, you’re looking at a 100- to 120-year rotation, so most people only cut timber very few times in their lifetime.”
Both the Division of Forestry and Kentucky Forest Industries Association acknowledge, though, that the responsibility of forest management isn’t up to landowners alone.
Loggers are also at the front lines of ensuring healthy trees for Kentuckians’ enjoyment and the future of the industry.
The 1998 Kentucky Forest Conservation Act requires loggers in the state to undergo training about “best management practices” through the Kentucky Master Logger program (see sidebar). All commercial timber harvesting operations in the state must have a designated Master Logger on site at all times.
Loggers like Charles and Chuck Courtney of Greenville, who were named the Appalachian Regional Outstanding Loggers in 2004 and Kentucky Master Loggers of the Year in 2003, say that the prescribed best management practices—such as re-grading and reseeding logging roads once the harvesting is done and leaving trees in riparian areas—are techniques their family has been practicing since the late 1940s.
With legislation now requiring that all loggers abide by such conservation techniques, Kentucky’s forests are bound to grow even stronger.
In 2003, the USDA Forest Service and the Kentucky Division of Forestry released a forest inventory. It showed that while the state has lost about 3 percent of its forest land since 1988, Kentucky is still growing more trees than are being harvested. What’s more, the “trees are bigger and of better quality” now, says MacSwords.
That’s good news for the timber industry, and for Kentucky.
DEVELOPING A FOREST STEWARDSHIP PLAN
The Kentucky Division of Forestry encourages landowners to work with a consulting forester or a forester from the Division of Forestry to develop a Forest Stewardship Plan before harvesting timber from their property.
The Division of Forestry can arrange for a forester, wildlife biologist, and other natural resource professionals to help woodland owners in preparing a stewardship plan.
Plans can focus on proper forest management, wildlife habitat improvement, forest watershed management, or forest recreation and aesthetics.
“If landowners don’t already have a plan, we encourage them to call us and let us come out before they start logging,” says Leah MacSwords, director of the Division of Forestry.
“The stewardship plan is free, but we also offer a service where we can mark the timber and the trees that we believe will bring them good value, but will leave them with a healthy and sustainable forest for years to come,” she says.
For more information on preparing a Forest Stewardship Plan, landowners can locate the Division of Forestry’s district office serving their county on the Web at www.forestry.ky.gov/distoff or by contacting the Kentucky Division of Forestry at (502) 564-4496. You can also contact the Kentucky Chapter of the Association of Consulting Foresters of America online at www.kacf.org. The national Association of Consulting Foresters of America can be reached at (888) 540-8733 or online at www.acf-foresters.com.
FORESTRY WEB SITES
•Kentucky Division of Forestry
•Kentucky Forest Industries Association
•Kentucky Chapter of the Association of Consulting Foresters of America Inc.
•Kentucky Master Logger Program
•Kentucky Woodland Owners Association
KENTUCKY MASTER LOGGER PROGRAM
The 1998 Kentucky Forest Conservation Act requires that a designated Kentucky Master Logger be on site at all commercial timber harvesting operations in the state at all times.
As of October 8, 2004, 5,833 loggers had completed the three-day Master Logger training program, which is co-sponsored by the University of Ken-tucky Department of Forestry, the Kentucky Division of Forestry, Kentucky Forest Industries Association, and other interested groups.
A searchable database of the active Master Loggers in the state is available at www.masterlogger.org.