Environment

Kentucky coal helped fuel the state’s prosperity for generations, but production is down, mines are going bankrupt or sitting idle and the state is left with a legacy of environmental degradation.

It’s apparent in the moonscapes of the state’s mountaintop removal coal mines, the acid mine drainage of its waterways, the coal ash leftover from burning coal for electricity and the carbon dioxide pumped into the atmosphere.

Half a world away at the Mauna Loa Observatory on top of a mountain in Hawaii, climate scientists are measuring the impact. Carbon dioxide levels reached 412 parts per million in August — higher than at any time in human history.

Kentucky coal and the burning of fossil fuels have contributed to the climate crisis that now presents an urgent and potentially irreversible threat to mankind.

The latest special report from the United Nations’ panel on climate change stresses that global warming is already altering our landscapes, increasing risks to human health, ecosystems and livelihoods.

But the report also stresses that there are solutions.

Reforestation and sustainable forest management remains one of the simplest and more effective strategies for combating climate change. Nearly half the state of Kentucky is covered in forest and there is room for more — at least a million acres more by the state’s estimate.

Conservationists, scientists and foresters say Kentucky is well positioned to lead the way in natural climate solutions. Forests could help diversify the state’s economy while providing a more sustainable, equitable future for the region.

“I think Kentucky is well positioned to take a leadership role in this whole climate change dialogue. We have the resources and potential, if we just had the political will to do it,” said Dr. Aruni Bhatnagar, director of the University of Louisville’s Envirome Institute.

The Wealth of Kentucky’s Forests

The state’s forestry industry already provides about four times as many jobs as coal – about 26,000 jobs in 2017, according to the University of Kentucky.

Meanwhile researchers estimated the Forest Sector — including logging, paper, wood and other products — accounted for about a $13.5 billion economic contribution to the state in 2017. Outdoor recreation contributes another $12.8 billion dollars annually and another 120,000 jobs, according to the Outdoor Industry Association.

By contrast, Kentucky’s Energy and Environment Cabinet estimated the total economic contribution of coal to be just $6.76 billion in 2014 — the latest numbers available.

Kentucky’s forests also offer a cornucopia of “products” beyond trees and recreation. Secondary forest products include the harvesting of mushrooms, fruits, nuts and the American ginseng. And where would we be without American white oak used to make the barrels vital to the state’s bourbon industry?

Beyond monetary value, Kentucky’s forests are preserves for diverse ecosystems that support more than 120 species of native trees and shrubs, from the sugar maple to the running buffalo clover. They also store carbon, limit erosion, and improve soil and air quality while protecting the state’s nearly 50,000 streams and rivers, according to the National Association of State Foresters.

Because of conservation lands like those on Pine Mountain in Eastern Kentucky, black bears have come back to the state and migratory birds travel between North and South America, said Greg Abernathy, Kentucky Natural Lands Trust executive director.

“We’re particularly situated within an area with amazing biodiversity that is important for all life on the planet,” Abernathy said.

Threats To Kentucky’s Forest

Protecting Kentucky’s forests are a means to build resilience, but Kentucky as a state has invested less in conservation than surrounding states, Abernathy said.

The existing forest is fragmented, cut up by roads, power lines and railroads.

“These forests are chopped into smaller and smaller functional blocks and so the actual ecological function that these forests are providing is greatly diminished by fragmentation,” Abernathy said.

The Emerald Ash Borer beetle is now in 89 counties and will eventually affect the entire state, said Bridget Abernathy, urban forestry partnership coordinator with the Kentucky Division of Forestry, and Greg’s partner. Hemlock trees in the eastern part of the state are affected by another pest, the Hemlock woolly adelgid.

At the same time, Bridget Abernathy has watched climate change strain Kentucky’s forests. 

“Our climate has changed,” she said. “In the past 20 years, we have warmer temperatures here in Kentucky, this is all through [Environmental Protection Agency] data monitoring.”

Increased rainfall and a slight temperature rise has risen the risk of flooding as well as droughts, she said. Flooding in turn causes soil erosion while warming temperatures, heat waves and droughts cause declines in certain species including maples, beeches and birches.

But Kentucky’s forests are resilient. Kentucky’s climate has seen fewer climate impacts than other parts of the country and is not expected to experience the scale of destructive wildfires seen in places like California and Florida.

And overall, Kentucky’s forests are growing at rate of about 317 million cubic feet a year — even after subtracting for the amount harvested or killed, according to a United States Department of Agriculture Fact Sheet from 2016.  

“Even if we have a robust forest industry that is removing some of those trees and we have some of those trees dying naturally or through disease or pests we still come out ahead because we have such vast forests,” Bridget Abernathy said.

Forest, A Natural Climate Solution

Globally, there is enough room on the planet for trees to capture as much as two-thirds of the carbon dioxide humans have generated since the beginning of the industrial revolution, according to a study released in July.

Natural climate solutions like carbon storage could be a future industry for the state, said Greg Abernathy, with the Kentucky Natural Lands Trust. 

“Simply stated — forest carbon markets have the potential to pay forestland owners to keep forests intact and well managed, thus maintaining forest carbon storage while redefining the ‘value’ of forests,’” Abernathy said. 

The state’s Energy and Environment Cabinet estimates there are more than one million acres of land that could benefit from tree planting. Fallow agricultural land, riparian and highway corridors are just a few of the areas that could be reforested.

“There is potential and there is land area for more trees to grow,” said Bridget Abernathy, “There is a lot of tree growth just through fallow farm fields that are naturally being regenerated.”

Bhatnagar, who heads the Green Heart Project in Louisville and oversees the Envirome Institute at the University of Louisville, says the state would benefit from recognizing not just carbon benefits, but the health benefits of protecting and expanding the state’s forests.

“In general, the tree canopy around countries could help. One, in removing the carbon from the atmosphere, but also in providing the biodiversity and richness of soil that would increase the richness of crops. So the whole green infrastructure needs to be preserved and enhanced as one of the key elements of combating climate change,” he said.

Doubling down on Kentucky’s forest economy may also help encourage economic transition away from fossil fuels while providing lasting benefits regionally, as a climate adaptation strategy.

USDA Forester Sonja Oswalt estimates only about 155,000 acres of more than 12.4 million acres of Kentucky forest are used to make some sort of treated forest product, meaning there is a lot of untapped potential for sustainably-managed forestry.

That’s land that could also be used for timber, fiber, biomass and other functions that can lower greenhouse gas emissions and contribute to climate adaptation, if managed sustainably. 

The responsibility for the future of the forest rests largely in the hands of private landowners who control about 88 percent of Kentucky’s forested lands. Those looking for help managing their forest can reach out to Kentucky’s Forest Stewardship Program.

“I think there is actually a tremendous amount of stewardship on private forest land,” Oswalt said. “Land is an investment, it’s a place you call home, you have an attachment to it and a deep love for it generally.”

Increasing investment in Kentucky’s forests in a sustainable manner ultimately means less will be lost to development and agriculture, she said. 

Trees, of course, are only one part of a solution to addressing climate change. But natural climate solutions like reforestation and sustainable land management have the added benefit of being cost effective and simple to enact.

This story is part of Covering Climate Now, a global collaboration of more than 250 news outlets to strengthen coverage of the climate story.

This story has been updated. 

Ryan Van Velzer is WFPL's Energy and Environment Reporter.