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Our Treasured Trees

Kentucky’s 12 million acres of forests—that’s half the state—contribute greatly to a thriving wood industry through employment, small business, tourism, wildlife, and other ecosystems, as well as pure enjoyment of nature. Management and sustainability of woodlands for current and future generations is a top priority, as it has been for more than 100 years.

Forests are more than just trees, and offer many values that we too often take for granted. It is the backbone of a nearly $10 billion tourism industry in the state and provides habitat for wildlife worth around $2.95 billion to the economy.

Most people are surprised to learn that nearly one-half of Kentucky is forested. UK Department of Forestry Extension forester Billy Thomas, who works closely with forest landowners, says, “Kentucky has 47 percent or 12 million acres in forests. Also, 88 percent of all forestland in the state is privately owned, with 76 percent (9.1 million acres) of that family-owned by more than 450,000 woodland owners. The remaining 12 percent is split equally between the national forests and other federal, state, and local governments.”

Governor Steve Beshear declared 2012 as the Year of Kentucky�s Forests in honor of the centennial for the state�s Division of Forestry. The year before, the United Nations declared 2011 the International Year of Forests.

Forests are special places for most people, and this is particularly true of Kentuckians who have a unique and longstanding relationship with the Commonwealth’s abundant forest resources. Our forests are enjoyed by 44 percent of the people of this state.

Kentucky forests are among the most diverse, temperate, and deciduous forests in the world. The mixed mesophytic forests (trees that grow in a moderately moist environment) of eastern Kentucky are rich in woody plant diversity.

“You might find up to 20 different woody species in an acre of a typical mixed mesophytic forest,� says Jeff Stringer, Extension professor of forestry at the University of Kentucky. Of these species, �black walnut, white oak, and northern red oak� are the most valuable, followed by �yellow poplar and sugar maple.”

These hardwood trees support a thriving wood industry, and Kentucky ranks among the top three or four leading hardwood-producing states in the country.

The industry is quite varied and employs people from harvesting and sawing timber to secondary operations that include the manufacturing of hardwood flooring, architectural millwork, kitchen cabinets, and bourbon barrels, to name just a few.

White oak, which grows well in our state, is prized worldwide for its unique characteristics. Virgin white oak casks are used exclusively in the manufacturing of bourbon. In 2012, wood barrels were the number-one wood product exported from Kentucky, representing one-third of our wood exports.

The University of Kentucky has recently undertaken a significant effort to document the importance of the diverse forest industry to the state. Bobby Ammerman, UK Forestry specialist for the Wood Industry, says, “When including pulp and paper, the Kentucky wood industry has a direct economic annual impact of over $6 billion to the state’s economy.”

One exceptional example of this industry and its importance to the state is Somerset Hardwood Flooring, which is one of the top hardwood flooring manufacturers in the United States. President and CEO Steve Merrick explains, �Our products are completely Kentucky- and American-made, and our success is due to the abundance of raw material supplied by Kentucky forests and the quality people we are able to employ. We use more than 78 million board feet of lumber every year that is Kentucky-grown and purchased from Kentucky sawmills.�

Merrick says nothing goes to waste. “We utilize every bit of wood that comes into the plant. We even use our wood waste to heat all our buildings and dry kilns, which dry our lumber, and the residual sawdust is used to make a biofuel, of which more than 50 semiloads of the pelletized wood fuel are sold every week.”

Dr. “Red” Baker, chair of the University of Kentucky Department of Forestry, says, “Forestry is important to Kentucky because it generates billions of dollars in revenue and employs nearly 25,000 people.”

Baker adds, “While these numbers are important, we should also remember forests contribute significantly to wildlife habitat, biodiversity, clean air and water, and carbon storage.” One research study valued these ecosystem services to be more than $1.47 billion annually for Kentucky.

Our forests also give us products other than timber or those mentioned above, including shiitake and oyster mushrooms, medicinal and herbal plants, maple syrup, wood for handicrafts, and fine art—all of which are important to our culture and economy.

From a woodland farm owner viewpoint, Henry Duncan in Logan County says, “Our family-owned woodlands offer special rewards by providing a private place to hunt and fish, in addition to opportunities for the family to just stroll and enjoy nature’s scenic offerings. Family and friends visiting from urban areas especially enjoy the woods that serve as a break from city life. Our 175 acres of mixed hardwood hold historical importance because it’s a part of great-great-grandfather Duncan�s vast woodland acreage, acquired along Muddy River in the early 1800s to support his leather tanyard industry.”

Duncan says he derives income from managed woodland through sustainable-type harvests conducted about every 15 years.

Because much of the forest is privately owned, the Kentucky Division of Forestry has a program to provide technical assistance to landowners. This is just one of the important services provided by the Kentucky Division of Forestry, which is the sole Kentucky governmental agency responsible for “ensuring the enhancement, protection, and conservation of forest resources for long-term sustainability,” according to Director and State Forester Leah MacSwords.

Other important mission areas include protecting the public from wildfire, monitoring the forests for invasive species and assisting with the control of those species, and working with the forestry industry.

Having just celebrated its centennial, MacSwords reflects, “We have nearly 50 percent of Kentucky still forested and the quality of the timber produced has improved, so we must have been doing something right for the past 100 years.”

Kentucky Woodland Owners Association (KWOA), one of 37 such state organizations found across the United States, seeks to promote good woodland management and sustainability for current and future generations. Duncan, current KWOA president, explains, “KWOA promotes economically and environmentally sound forest management by advancing the skills of the landowners through networking and communication.”

The forests of Kentucky are an invaluable resource for citizens of this state. Landowners, educators, government employees, and industry personnel have promoted numerous changes in the ways forests are managed over the past several decades.

Several forest conservation practices have been implemented, including the Master Logger Program, Best Management Practices, and USDA Farm Bill cost-share incentive programs, which have significantly improved forest management, protected important nontimber resources, and provided economic incentives to landowners for conserving this resource.

One of the latest and potentially important new programs is forest certification, which should provide additional incentive for managing sustainably while simultaneously helping to increase the value of timber harvested from forests. Although the idea of certification is nothing new—think USDA organic labeling—its application to forest resources is relatively recent and increasingly demanded by consumers, and therefore by producers of forest products.

Chris Reeves, UK specialist for forest certification, indicates that more than 8,000 acres have already been enrolled in a certification cooperative called the Center for Forest and Wood Certification. “Landowners can receive a premium, up to 20 percent more, for certified wood coming from their property,” says Reeves. But more importantly, “It is a tool for woodland owners to improve management of their woodlands by improving the planning and technical assistance associated with the requirements of certification.”

Red Baker says, “Kentuckians have many reasons to be proud of their forests, but we must be vigilant. There are many threats that forestry professionals quietly guard against every day, including, but not limited to, invasive species, fire, and timber theft.”

Baker adds, “Whatever we can do to conserve this resource and improve markets for Kentucky’s many timber and nontimber forest products will help to ensure our woods are managed properly, sustainably, and for the benefit of generations to come.”

THOMAS G. BARNES, PHD., is a wildlife biologist and professor with the University of Kentucky Department of Forestry and author of six books.

by Andy Mead

When Daniel Boone found his way through the Cumberland Gap, he entered a forest wilderness so immense it is hard for us to imagine. Now it is estimated that 99 percent of Kentucky’s forests have been cleared or logged at least once.

Old-growth forests are so rare that most Kentuckians have never been in one. But there are still a few places where people can go to see the large trees, clean streams, and profusion of wildflowers that botanists call “the original equipment.”

Here are a few of the largest remaining old-growth forests in Kentucky:

BLANTON FOREST This is the largest-known old-growth tract and one of the largest in the eastern United States. More than 2,300 acres that have never been cut are surrounded by hundreds of acres of younger forest in a state nature preserve in Harlan County. Grover and Oxie Blanton bought it in 1928 and saved it from the rampant logging of the era. Marc Evans, who at the time was with the Kentucky State Nature Preserves Commission, identified and documented it as old-growth a decade ago, and worked with landowners to bring it under the protection of the State Nature Preserves Commission.

Blanton Forest is managed by the Kentucky State Nature Preserves Commission. For more information on Blanton Forest State Nature Preserve, go online to, or call (606) 633-0362. You can also go to Kentucky Natural Land Trusts online at
for directions, trail map, and additional info.

LETOURNEAU WOODS These 870 acres in the Mississippi River floodplain of Fulton County are on the opposite end of the state from Blanton, and quite different. There are occasional cypress or pecan trees, and the woods flood for much of the winter and spring. Seasonal flooding and a closed tree canopy keep the forest floor open. Walking is easy during the summer for visitors who come prepared for mosquitoes and watch for poison ivy. Once owned by Frances Emerson Letourneau, Art Boebinger, a former public land coordinator for the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources, says she would shoo potential loggers from her door. It is now part of the Obion Creek Wildlife Management Area.

Enter it from the Wilson Access, off Upper Bottom Road in Fulton County. Owned by the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources, portions were purchased with funds from the Heritage Lands Conservation Fund Board. For more information, call the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife at (800) 858-1549.

THE BIG WOODS Most people who visit Mammoth Cave National Park are drawn by the world�s longest cave system, but The Big Woods provides a 300-acre reason to spend some time aboveground. Rick Olson, a park service ecologist, says the woods include some very large old trees, as well as younger ones. Its history is unclear, but unlike other places in the park, there are no old stumps to suggest that it has been logged. The Big Woods is in Hart County in the northeast corner of the park. There are no signs marking the tract, and no hiking trails. People who want to rough it can stop by the park’s Visitor Center for directions and a map. Parking is available.

Mammoth Cave National Park is located at 1 Mammoth Cave Parkway, Mammoth Cave, KY 42259, or call (270) 758-2180.

LILLEY CORNETT WOODS A Letcher County man named Lilley Cornett came home from World War I
and began buying up parcels of forested land. By the time he died in 1958, he owned 554 acres, 252 of which are old-growth. Eastern Kentucky University manages it. Biologist William H. Martin, who was instrumental in seeing that it would be permanently protected, says it is the finest remaining example of the mixed mesophytic forest that once blanketed the region.

Lilley Cornett Woods is located at 91 Lilley Cornett Branch, Skyline, KY 41821, or call (606) 633-5828.

by Andy Mead

Tom Barnes, the author of this main feature, has been to the top of Black Mountain, Kentucky’s highest peak, where spring brings what he considers the state’s most spectacular wildflower show.

He has sloshed into cypress wetlands in the Mississippi River floodplain when the air is thick with wintering geese and ducks.

He has seen the Kentucky River palisades in full fall color, and captured the image of a katydid feeding on goldenrod.

And he has shared all this with those who want to know where to find the best of nature that Kentucky has left to offer, even if we don�t often have the time or inclination to experience it ourselves.

Barnes is a wildlife biologist who is an Extension Service professor for the University of Kentucky. He is the author or co-author of six books (with two more on the way) and has contributed chapters to others. His works include Wildflowers and Ferns of Kentucky, Kentucky’s Last Great Places, and Gardening for the Birds.

He is a self-taught photographer whose images of flowers, wildlife, and beautiful scenes are breathtaking. His words, especially in Last Great Places, offer interesting information about Kentucky�s outdoors, along with sharp warnings that it needs to be protected before it is gone.

“I want my children to have a good quality of life and to at least be able to experience these kind of things,” he says.

There is also a spiritual element to Barnes’ work. A few years ago, he supplied photos and an essay for The Gift of Creation: Images from Scripture and Earth, which laid a spiritual basis for environmental stewardship.

Barnes has been in every Kentucky county and nearly every state nature preserve. His current work on a book about waterfalls, however, convinced him that �I hadn�t been anywhere yet.� Another book, currently in the publication process, is about land acquired by the Kentucky Heritage Land and Conservation Fund, which gets its proceeds from nature license plates.

It is getting harder for Barnes, 55, to lug a tripod, camera, and other equipment to some of the wild places he needs to go. He has had four hip replacements and open-heart surgery.

“I just kind of plug along, but it takes me longer than it used to,” he says. “I always have said that I would die if I couldn’t get outside.”

In addition to his books, Barnes works with county Extension agents to develop programs on wildlife and to answer people’s questions on everything from snakes to blackbirds. He gives 50 to 60 educational talks a year on various subjects, including wildflowers, and on what needs to be done to conserve what�s left of Kentucky’s biological diversity.

Marc Evans, who serves on the boards of several environmental organizations, says Barnes has a special ability to convey an important message.

“Many scientists don’t have a way to impart information to the public in a way that holds your attention,” he says. “Tom has an uncanny ability to take what could be dry or complicated information and make it interesting.”


UK Department of Forestry, Cooperative Extension Service

Center for Forest and Wood Certification

Kentucky Master Logger

Kentucky Division of Forestry

Kentucky Chapter of the Association of Consulting Foresters of America Inc.

Kentucky Woodland Owners Association

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