Appalachian Forests are More Than Just the Trees

For too long, economic development in Appalachia has been focused on attracting big, outside businesses with tax breaks and other incentives. However, these firms often can move out as easily as they moved in, as many communities who saw their livelihoods move overseas can attest. Growing local businesses from community and regional assets has begun to gain more traction, and, as the Daily Yonder showed recently, are creating jobs as well.

The Daily Yonder profiled Rural Action, a non-profit based in Appalachian Ohio, and their Wealth From Forests Initiative, which connects buyers interested in sustainably-harvested lumber to landowners, loggers and sawmills.  "'We’re building a wood products brokering business to help locally owned producers access the green market,' [Executive Director Michelle] Decker said. They started out working with buyers in Virginia and Tennessee, but now are bidding on jobs in Ohio, New York, and Pennsylvania." 

Central Appalachia’s forests are abundant, and once were a source of great wealth for the regio

n. But as the recession hit the homebuilding industry, the region’s timber industry has declined precipitiously. Between 2004 and 2009, the number of people employed in the wood products manufacturing sector in Appalachian Kentucky, Ohio, Virginia and West Virginia dropped an estimated 27%.  Meanwhile, poor management practices, invasive species and wildfires have reduced the quality of our timber. Programs like the Wealth From Forests Initiative build the incentive for managed land and sustainable harvesting practices, as certified wood products fetch higher prices and are seeing increased demand:

"As these orders flow into the region, it raises the demand for logs that come from land managed sustainably, which in turn increases acres under management. Rural Action makes it a point to work only with processors and mills that are locally owned, regardless of their size. By helping these operators find buyers for their products, Rural Action helps them build their businesses."

Forest conservation in itself is a job creator as well. A recent study from the Center for American Progress examined the potential economic benefits from national forest and park land, from forest stewardship to recreation and tourism. Our national forests sup

ported over 224,000 jobs in 2010 alone, according to the report. The vast majority of forest land in Central Appalachia is privately-owned (though we do have the Daniel Boone, Wayne, Jefferson, Monongalia, and Cherokee National Forests, the Great Smoky Mountains, and numerous State Forests), but many of these benefits – particularly around recreation and tourism – are not limited to public lands alone.

Ecosystem services – meaning all the things our forests do that we don’t put a price on, like cleaning our air and water – are another way to realize income from Appalachia’s natural assets. Determining mechanisms for ecosystem services payments is challenging, but some projects are working. The Appalachian Carbon Partnership pays landowners to manage their forest land by selling carbon credits to individuals, businesses and nonprofits who want to reduce their carbon footprint. New York City pays upstream landowners to protect their land in order to keep the city’s drinking water pure.

It can be easy to take for granted something that surrounds us every day. But a growing number of Appalachians are seeing their forests not just as trees, but as something that, when protected and managed well, can be a valuable source of income. It's time to stop overlooking one of our region's biggest assets and begin investing in the programs and policies that will help communities to use and manage their forests for the benefit of both the economy and the environment.