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A Letter to the Courier-Journal Newspaper

concerning forestry in Kentucky on the occasion of the legislature considering regulating logging.

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A letter to the Courier-Journal newspaper of Louisville, Kentucky, January 28, 1998.

As a consulting forester, I read with interest your recent (Jan. 25-27, 1998) series of articles about Kentucky's forest resource by Andrew Melnykovych and others as well as the editorial in the Sunday Forum section. I found the series very informative and a good introduction to the issues involved.

I did, however, find that, in a few areas, my experiences of eleven years with the Kentucky Division of Forestry as a Service Forester and Assistant District Forester and subsequent nineteen years as a consulting forester in southeastern and south central Kentucky conflict with the prevailing conventional wisdom. Perhaps this experience plus the fact that I come from a family with 200 years history as Kentucky landowners and managing our family farm including 450 acres of forest for the last quarter century gives me a unique perspective.

There is some environmental damage from logging operations. In some cases it is very significant. I certainly support logger training, the Master Logger program, required use of BMPs, and notification of the Division of Forestry when logging occurs. However, I also think that, in the mind of the general public, the aesthetic damage in terms of looks caused by a logging operation is often equated with environmental damage. Cutting a tree does not damage the environment. Dragging it through a stream does. The method of selecting trees to cut may also damage the environment in terms of changing the forest composition. My point is that timber harvest as such is not synonymous with environmental degradation.

A completely separate issue is the economic issue of the need for much better forest management on privately owned woodlands if the people of the Commonwealth of Kentucky are to receive maximum benefits in terms of jobs and forest industries from our vast forest resource. A major misconception is that the solution to this problem lies in public education efforts. It makes a good story and people like to believe that more information and education efforts will solve this problem, but it just ain't so. Certainly such efforts are useful and they are needed but they are not the solution. The problem is an economic one and it requires an economic solution.

One of your articles said that Kentucky's landowners have shown little interest in forest management in the past because our forests haven't been recognized as having value. It continued, "well informed landowners will be less likely to sell their timber for quick profits and more likely to manage the woodlands to produce a steady stream of trees and income." This probably does apply with some landowners and increased timber values do make timber management more cost effective. However, ninety percent of the landowners I have known, if told timber values are high, will say, "Then now would be a good time to sell." They do not say, "Now would be a good time to manage my timber."

At present the overwhelming tendency to cut trees before economic maturity is the one thing most counter productive to maximizing forest production of wood products and also to a lesser extent of wildlife, recreation, and watershed protection. This situation is due to ownership patterns, economic needs of land owners and an inability of the financial infrastructure to deal adequately with the long term needs of forest production.

Small areas of forests owned by a great number of landowners changing ownership every few years tend to give forest management a very low priority. On a typical farm with less than 100 acres of forest, timber is seen as a resource to be harvested whenever cash is needed. There is usually no plan for long term forest management, even on ownerships up to several thousands of acres. Many times land is purchased with the idea and the necessity of a timber sale to help pay for the land. Many farmers have to sell timber to offset losses from other farming operations or to cover unexpected expenses. Financial institutions, attorneys, and real estate agents usually have no knowledge of and no way to evaluate long term timber production value and potential so financing is available only for value of present liquidation, not for future production.

Although public education efforts about long term forest management are necessary, the key to encouraging long term production must lie in economic efforts. Public forestry agencies argue that the most returns come from delaying harvest. Although that may be true, it is academic to an investor who can afford to purchase land only if he liquidates the timber or to a farmer who due to a poor crop year or low markets must raise cash to make the mortgage payment. In neither case is the banker likely to listen to pleas about the future value of growing timber.

There are a number of forest industries in Kentucky owned by wise men who have been in business for the better part of a century and have made their living by production of a very scarce commodity, high quality hardwoods. These men have seen a constant decrease in the supply of their raw materials due to this cutting pattern. As a result more wood industries which utilize small wood products are moving into the state. This leads to better markets for smaller timber and increased overcutting of these size classes. Proper timber management requires markets for small wood products to encourage thinning and removal of inferior trees as the stand matures. If the economic situation results in removal of all trees or crop trees in addition to inferior trees then the supply of large high quality sawtimber and veneer logs will continue to decline.

It would seem to me that the traditional Kentucky wood industry, environmental organizations and state government would all have a vested interest in proper forest management. I would also argue that the present strategy of approaching this problem by programs of public education are mostly whistling into the wind. The problem is largely economic.

I therefore propose that if these entities really want to approach this problem realistically they consider financing a non profit forest management organization with the goal of employing professional foresters to purchase timber from these landowners under a contract which would turn management of the timber over to the organization with timber sales determined by the organization and any excess returns over forest management and overhead expenses going back to the landowner.

This is the concept of a non-profit non-government organization underwritten and supported by a combination of government, forest industry, and conservation groups which would buy standing timber which is on the market on a contract which would leave the timber standing until foresters employed by the organization decided it had reached maturity and then sell with the organization recovering its investment plus a small profit and any additional revenues recovered being returned to the landowner.

A third issue concerning timber sales was not specifically stated but implied in your editorial, "Profit from timber" in the Sunday Forum section. You stated that landowners are getting ripped off by the timber industry because they accept payments that are much too low and then their land is damaged by unsound logging practices. I have no quarrel with that statement. You then go on to say that the Governor's bill should ask for "enough money to hire all the foresters who are needed to educate landowners on the value of their timber and the best way to harvest it." I agree with that statement except for the phrase, "the value of their timber".

A timber sale is an economic transaction between two (or more) citizens of the Commonwealth, one a buyer and the other a seller. I would argue that it is none of the state's business who is the winner and who the loser on this transaction any more than it is the state's business how much you charge for your newspaper. The government definitely has a legitimate interest in seeing that the environment is not damaged due to this transaction. The government probably has a legitimate interest in encouraging, not requiring, forest management for the overall economic benefit of the citizens of the commonwealth, but foresters employed by the state have no business trying to set sale values on standing timber. Although it is true that landowners often get ripped off, it is also true that landowners can hire consulting foresters to assist in timber sales to prevent this. Some do not know of this option but, in most cases, landowners resent the idea of paying a consultant his 10% fee or whatever and feel they can make a better deal for themselves. As a result I estimate that they get, on average, 40 to 60 percent of the value of their timber although I know of several cases where they got as low as 15 or 20 percent. In any case, if the buyer makes a higher profit, that's simply more income taxes he has to pay to the state and the state is not hurt at all.

It should be noted that if there is actually any serious effort to improve forest conditions in the state, many more professional foresters, both private consultants and employees of the state and the forest industries, will be needed. Perhaps a program of professional licensing of foresters similar to those in place in other states (like Georgia, for example) should be considered by someone.

Thank you for your extensive and excellent efforts to make more information on the issues available to Kentucky's citizens in what could be a pivotal moment in the history of forestry in Kentucky.

Duane Bristow
Albany, Kentucky 42602

Note: Although the Courier Journal did not publish the above letter, they did mention the URL of this website on their letters page. Contrary to my expectations that did not result in any increased traffic to these forestry pages or any comments to me from anyone in Kentucky about logging. I guess that shows that either:


Logging Regulation Bill

A bill to regulate commercial logging in Kentucky completed a difficult journey through the General Assembly March 31, 1998

Complaints from property-rights activists diluted support for the proposal, which supporters called Kentucky's first effort to regulate logging.

Property-rights advocates feared that the bill would let state inspectors enter private property to regulate timber cutting. The bill was rewritten so it would not apply to anyone cutting timber on their own property.

The bill also would not give the state any additional authority to enter private property to inspect timber-cutting practices. State inspectors could only go onto private property if there was evidence of violations that caused water pollution.

The bill's regulatory powers would be limited to commercial logging. It would require loggers to have a trained master logger on all cutting sites and to correct any damage they do to land or water.

Commercial loggers would have to follow "best management practices" to avoid erosion and other damage that could foul water sources.

In addition, the bill would create statewide inventories of forested land conducted by the Division of Forestry, and it would provide education and advice for private owners of forested land.


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Last revised April 9, 1998.

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