The Kentucky Division of Forestry's nurseries are going through the ultimate rebuilding year.
Created by the General Assembly 100 years ago, the division's mission is, in part, to help Kentuckians conserve tree resources.
That mission has been sorely tested this year, with one of the state's two tree nurseries crippled by tornadoes in March in Morgan County.
Normally, when they're at full capacity, the nurseries (the other is in Marshall County) are capable of providing 3 million to 4 million seedlings each year, said Lynn True, spokeswoman for the Division of Forestry.
The Morgan County nursery was directly in the path of the early March tornadoes that devastated West Liberty.
"We're right on the outskirts of West Liberty and took the brunt of it," True said.
Several buildings were blown away, as was the nursery's firefighting equipment.
Most seedlings that were 1 to 2 feet tall — about 700 of them — were largely unscathed.
"The damage came from all the equipment scattered everywhere," True said.
The nursery begins selling trees in the winter and waits for just the right kind of conditions to pull them out of the ground.
"We'll do 60,000 in a day," said Tim Sheehan, forest reserve branch manager. Then, when things turn cold and snowy again, they spend their time inside, bundling the trees together, getting them ready to ship out in January, February and March.
So the tornado hit right in the middle of shipping season.
"March 2 is the busiest time to be shipping trees," Sheehan said. "We had a semi-load of trees to be shipped to the Western Kentucky nursery and a couple of large planting contractors who do reclamation work on their way to pick up trees. In the blink of an eye, you've got no electric, no computer, no phones, ... and a pile of steel on all your trees."
Then you get 5 inches of snow, Sheehan said. In all, they lost about $150,000 in tree orders.
No one at the nursery was hurt, he said, and employees found a working tractor to pull the debris off bundles of seedlings.
"All these people are depending on these trees," Sheehan said. "When you get into March, people are ready to plant."
They were able to get a few of those trees out, and many young seedlings in the ground survived, although the tornado sucked the mulch and lighter seeds, such as ash and yellow poplar, right out of the ground, said Charlie Saunders, the Morgan County nursery superintendent.
The summer was rough: The tornado also destroyed $40,000 in water pipes used to irrigate the nursery, adding another layer of difficulty to dealing with this year's drought.
The next challenge is coming up: As it does every year, the state is taking orders for seedlings for dozens of kinds of trees. The Morgan County nursery has the trees; what they don't have yet is a place to process them this winter. Bids have gone out for a building, but they will have to use refrigerated trucks to clean and bundle the trees and store them until they can be shipped out.
Otherwise, the prospect is even worse: "We're going to have to plow them under if we can't get a building to process them in," Sheehan said.
Replacements for those baby trees won't be easy to find.
"We lost 90 to 95 percent of the stocking trees that we use to collect seed to plant," Saunders said. "They're all gone."
He said he and other forestry officials are scouting now for new sources. Recently, he combed the grounds at the University of Kentucky for pin oak acorns.
One of the most difficult trees to replace will be a popular disease-free butternut.
"We used to get eight 5-gallon buckets of nuts a year off that tree," Saunders said. "We had a nice adult tree that was canker-free. We lost a lot of nice trees, but that butternut was the one I wish we could have saved. It was just uprooted too much."
Janet Patton: (859) 231-3264. Twitter: @janetpattonhl.