As SOAR moves into its second year, we wonder why the forest hasn't been at the forefront of discussions on the economic future of Eastern Kentucky.
The forest is intertwined with the culture of the people who live there and largely defines a region that is 80 percent to 90 percent forested. We have many opportunities for utilizing this natural resource for economic gain.
A recent analysis indicated the forest industry could provide the region with an additional $1.4 billion annually and over 7,000 new jobs.
These increases can be obtained through expanding current industries and improved use of abundant degraded timber resources, as well as improving the utilization of raw timber products currently harvested in the region. The analysis was constructed to utilize only one-half of the region's forest growth potential, thus providing a platform for long-term sustainability and protection of the resource.
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Perhaps society values other benefits the forest provides (air and water quality, wildlife habitat, ecotourism, hunting) over those more industrial end uses. If so, we still need to ensure that we have the economic and management capacity to protect these valuable resources for the long-term.
Either way, a commitment to improving the capacity of our Eastern Kentucky forest seems like a worthwhile investment.
Kentucky's forest industry provided $12.9 billion to the commonwealth's economy in 2014, surpassing or rivaling many of what we consider mainstream industries.
In Eastern Kentucky, where we have the state's highest density of forests, opportunities abound to stimulate job creation and economic growth.
However, we must ensure that this growth is sustainably developed and our forests remain healthy and resilient to their many threats. These threats are biological and environmental, such as climate change and exotic invasive pests and diseases, as well as the threats associated with benign neglect and exploitative use of the forest and its related resources.
Programs and initiatives are in place to help with these many issues. However they are generally underfunded and need to be fully supported to deal with the increasing pressures faced by our forests.
The Forest Health Research and Education Center, a partnership between the U.S. Forest Service, University of Kentucky and Kentucky Division of Forestry, was recently designed to address critical and emerging forest health issues.
Also, initiatives like Green Forests Work, promoting reforestation of surface mines, and the Center for Forest and Wood Certification, promoting market-driven sustainable forest management, are focused on practicing wise conservation and use of our forest resources.
SOAR is another opportunity to help conservation and the sustainable use of our forests. Improving our investment in our forest resources can contribute significantly to a sustainable future for the commonwealth.