Forest industries have the potential to provide thousands more jobs in Eastern and southern Kentucky as leaders in the region search for ways to improve the economy, according to an analysis.
Expanding the forestry sector could provide $1.49 billion in new revenue and nearly 7,500 additional jobs in a 54-county region that includes areas hit hard by a sharp decrease in coal jobs, researchers in the Department of Forestry at the University of Kentucky concluded.
That growth would drive more jobs in other sectors as well, the study said.
The department did the study at the request of participants in the initiative called Shaping Our Appalachian Region, or SOAR.
U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers, a Republican who represents southern and Eastern Kentucky, and Gov. Steve Beshear, a Democrat, started the initiative in late 2013 to look for ways to improve the economy and quality of life in the region.
The report said more than 80 percent of the land in SOAR's region is forested.
Strategic expansion of industries tied to that abundant timber represents "low-hanging fruit" in the search to provide a more sustainable economic base, the study found.
Most of the growth could come from better use of lower-quality timber, which is much more abundant. About two-thirds of the timber in the 54-county region is not considered to be in the top two grades.
There also could be better use of high-quality timber, the report said.
The gains would be to landowners selling timber, loggers cutting and hauling trees, and processors and manufacturers.
There is room to expand existing forest-related businesses in the region and to add more loggers, sawmills, and pallet and furniture makers, the report said.
However, there is not infrastructure to support development of a pulp or paper mill, and there are not enough high-quality trees to justify developing greater veneer-mill capacity, the UK report said.
Any effort to expand the forest sector must be done in a way that is sustainable and protects wildlife and the environment, which calls for sound management, the report said.
"Without proper forest management, the health and resiliency of the region's forests are in jeopardy, and the forest will fall short of yielding the economic, ecologic and society values that are possible in the region," the report said.
The report said forestry could be boosted as an economic force in the region without interfering with other needs such as recreation and tourism, and without threatening forest growth and established industries.
The analysis was based on sustainable use of half the annual tree growth in the region that is not harvested now, creating a cushion to ensure continued growth.
The report cautioned that it would take time to see many of the benefits of expanding the forestry sector.
There are programs and organizations in place that could help boost forestry.
But UK forestry professors Jeffrey W. Stringer — one of the researchers on the analysis — and Christopher D. Barton said in a recent commentary that programs to deal with issues such as sustainable forest development and environmental threats to forests are "generally underfunded."
The analysis did not advocate strategies to make trees a bigger piece of the economy but said incentives for landowners to practice better forest management and workforce training could be important.