How UK hopes to make millions from its 15,000-acre forest without mining or logging

For decades, people have sparred over the University of Kentucky’s Robinson Forest, a 15,000-acre block of ecologically diverse Appalachian woodland that serves as a living laboratory for how healthy forests can impact the water and animals that run through them.

Since 1923, when timber magnate E.O. Robinson handed over the clear-cut land in parts of Breathitt, Perry and Knott counties to UK, people have argued about whether UK should benefit from its rich resources. Either the coal seams below or timber harvests above could yield significant new revenue for Kentucky’s financially-strained flagship university.

Just a month ago, Senate President Robert Stivers, R-Manchester, suggested UK should mine the land in order to fund its Robinson Scholars’ program, a scholarship program Gov. Matt Bevin had proposed to eliminate from the state budget.

Now, UK officials hope they have found a way for the forest to financially benefit the school while preserving it as a living laboratory. UK is exploring a partnership with The Nature Conservancy to implement a program that could pay UK millions for allowing the forest to offset environmental pollution elsewhere.

It might, they estimate, make between $4 million and $6 million in the first 5 years of the program.

This hillside stream in Robinson Forest trickles down into Lewis Fork creek. The University of Kentucky was given the forest in 1923 after it was heavily logged. Since then, the forest has largely regenerated, and UK researchers study water quality and sustainable forestry there. Tom Eblen

It’s part of the conservancy’s new Working Woodlands program, in which local landowners certify their forests are being conserved and maintained using sustainable practices. Then the conservancy helps the land owner figure out how much carbon the forest holds, measured in tons per acre. Those tons are converted into carbon credits that can be purchased by companies or individuals who want to offset the pollution they may be causing.

For example, an airline might choose to purchase carbon credits, and that money could end up in the hands of a private landowner in Kentucky.

Jeff Stringer, chairman of UK’s forestry department, also heads up the UK Center for Forest and Wood Certification, which has long helped private landowners in Kentucky get their forests certified for sustainable management, mostly through the Forest Stewardship Council.

Forests cover more than half of the state — about 12.6 million acres — so Stringer is excited about the potential financial payback available to Kentucky land owners. About 11.2 million acres of the state’s forest land is privately owned.

At the same time, UK officials have been looking at ways to trim costs and produce revenue in the face of declining state funding. Stringer told Nancy Cox, dean of the College of Agriculture, Food and Environment, about his work with the conservancy and they decided to see if Robinson Forest could be part of the program, too.

“We looked at this as an opportunity to provide some recurring money to help operate the forest, as well as hold a demonstration here for woodland owners in the state,” Stringer said.

How much carbon a forest has sequestered depends on its age.

Robinson Forest’s big payday is based on the breadth and age of its trees in the main 10,000 acre block. According to Stringer, the American Carbon Registry, which is used by the Nature Conservancy, has estimated they would pay UK between $450-650 per acre spread out over the first five to 10 years. That’s after a portion goes to the conservancy for administering the program.

After that, the price would drop to $10 or $20 an acre per year. But even an extra $200,000 a year would make a difference to researchers in the forest, Stringer said.

“It could be real money, without changing anything that we do, management wise,” said Cox, who called the initiative one of the most exciting projects she’s worked on. “We keep the body of the forest intact.”

David Phemister, director of the conservancy’s Kentucky chapter, said his group is glad to be working with UK.

“Robinson Forest has this long history as an on-the-ground research and demonstration forest on a whole host of forestry issues,” he said. “One of the things we’re excited about with Working Woodlands is the chance for landowners to get financial return for doing the right thing ecologically on their forest. With Robinson Forest we can show how a well-managed, sustainable forest can provide people and nature all these benefits, including a financial one for leaving the trees standing.”

Phemister and UK officials hope to have a memorandum of understanding worked out within the next few months and have the program up and running within the next 12 to 18 months.

Stringer and other researchers will work directly with one of their former students, Will Bowling, a UK forestry graduate from Eastern Kentucky who is the conservancy’s Central Appalachians Projects Director. He works out of Oneida in Clay County.

“We hope to use this as a model and showcase what the opportunities for landowners on private land really are,” he said.

Linda Blackford: 859-231-1359, @lbblackford