A Perspective on Kentucky's Forests - A HerKentucky Guest Post

I'm so pleased to feature a dear friend's guest post today! Merril Flanary is a Kentucky girl currently living, studying and working in Sweden. She's a Renaissance woman - talented with words, musical instruments and a love for the natural world. I hope you enjoy her perspective on Kentucky's forests.

-Lydia

Blanton Forest by Merril Flanary
Growing up at the end of a country road in a small town in central Kentucky, I was surrounded by forests.  Although my parents labored in flower beds near the house, they applied a more laissez-faire gardening approach to most of the property.  The eighty-year-old sugar maple and red oak trees planted when the house was first built were left to grow.  The shed where we parked the lawnmower was actually a ½-acre grove of pawpaw trees my dad saw no point in trying to contain.  We burned black locust for heat in the winter and revelled in the sight of dogwood blooms commencing Derby season in the spring.  For me, trees were beautiful and strong things that fulfilled our utilitarian needs almost as often as they provided us with seasonal aesthetic pleasures.  

I suppose it was all those years amongst my family’s trees that first sparked my interest in forestry.  A forestry summer course in high school sealed the deal.  After learning to identify a few species and how to use a compass, I was certain there was no better subject to study.  Soon after, I was enrolled as an undergraduate forestry student at the University of Kentucky.
   
Photo by Beverly James
Kentucky’s forests are incredibly complex.  Rivaled only by the tropical rainforests of Central and South America, Kentucky’s forests are among the most diverse in the world.  There are almost 100 native tree species found throughout the Commonwealth; the forests in the Pacific Northwest or the Rocky Mountains have only a handful.  The seven distinct ecological regions in Kentucky harbor an equal number of unique forest types, each with their own assortments of geology, soils, mammals, reptiles, insects, and birds.  Our forests are an important oasis for ecological processes and biodiversity.  

Kentucky’s forest industry is unique and significant.  Almost half of Kentucky’s surface area is covered in forests, most of which are owned by private landowners in small tracts less than ten-acres in size.  Unlike other states, where government or large corporations own much of the forest land, these private citizens provide 95% of the saw timber that makes up Kentucky’s forest industry.  Harvesting red oak, white oak and yellow-poplar, Kentucky is among the top three hardwood producers in the US.  

Blanton Forest by Merril Flanary
My love affair for forestry grew most significantly while studying and subsequently working in the forests of eastern Kentucky.  The remoteness and rugged terrain of this region are among the reasons it has earned the reputation of redheaded stepchild of Kentucky society, but it was for these reasons I found myself drawn to the region.  Dodging rattlesnakes and black bears, I studied and worked in eastern Kentucky for five years.  Nowhere else in the state are there as many tracts of intact forest, and it was in these forests my budding interests grew and prospered. 

Photo by Merril Flanary
When you walk ten feet in a forest in eastern Kentucky—with the smallest shift in aspect or a few feet in elevation—the scene completely changes.  In the bottomlands, dense stands of eastern hemlock and American beech trees shade freshwater streams and provide safe cover for birds.  Along a northeast facing slope, the perfectly straight stems of yellow-poplar grow as uniformly as the fields of corn that settlers grew there a century ago.  Majestic white oak, hickory, and black cherry scatter hilltops providing an abundance of food for an array of animals.  Perhaps the most endearing quality of these forests is the variety of plants finding purchase on the forest floor.  Squaw root punctures through the litter layer, maidenhair fern dances in a warm breeze, and Virginia creeper crawls over rocks and roots in search of sunlight.  

Photo by Kyle Napier
The diversity of Kentucky’s forests and the dynamic uses of these forests make them an integral part of our culture.  As a child climbing over broken branches in my backyard, I never thought I would one day commit myself to the study of forests.  It has been a rewarding endeavour that is far from over and makes my experience as a Kentucky girl all the richer.