Forest resources and natural landscapes are critical components of local communities. However, they face mounting threats from a variety of invasive insects and pathogens. These pests have the potential to decimate our foundational tree species and degrade the ecosystems that depend on them.

Trees and forests currently under attack – affecting people, communities, and the environment

Forest-based economies throughout Kentucky, and the eastern hardwood region in general, largely depend on a handful of foundational tree species and the disappearance of these trees would have catastrophic socio-economic impacts, hurting the communities and people who depend on them.

One of the most worrisome threats is that an invasive insect or pathogen could decimate populations of key oak species. Oaks comprise nearly 50% of hardwood sawtimber volume in Kentucky and are the cornerstone of local forestbased economies, which contribute more than $12 billion to the Commonwealth’s economy. For example, Kentucky’s hallmark distilling industry, which has grown from $1.8 to $3 billion in the last two years, is dependent on white oak for bourbon barrels.

Current threats to our oaks include the disease sudden oak death, which has killed millions of oaks on the west coast over the past 20 years and has been repeatedly introduced to the area through the nursery industry. Although it has yet to establish in the east, the eventual arrival of sudden oak death seems imminent and its impact could be severe.

Threats on our door step – and the potential for catastrophic economic loss

Experts believe that the invasive insects emerald ash borer and hemlock woolly adelgid will continue to spread, killing most ash and hemlock trees across the eastern U.S. These follow in the wake of the invasive pathogens chestnut blight and dutch elm disease, which have effectively eliminated chestnut and elm trees from our landscapes. If these and other invasives continue to spread, the resulting losses to woodland owners, wood manufacturers, homeowners and municipalities will be devastating. In addition, such losses will forever change forest and streamside ecosystems, including the habitat of aquatic and terrestrial wildlife that depend on these key tree species.

Regaining the initiative – a proactive approach to solving tree and forest health challenges

Scientists across the region, country and world have turned a keen eye to these forest threats and are developing new strategies to address their impacts. However, so far these efforts have failed to produce strategic and comprehensive initiatives to protect our imperiled trees and the forests they support.

The Forest Health Research and Education Center – a collaborative center, combining biological and social sciences and education

To address this challenge, the University of Kentucky (UK), the USDA Forest Service Southern Research Station (USFS), and the Kentucky Division of Forestry (KDF) have partnered to form the “Forest Health Research and Education Center” (FHC). Through regional, national, and international collaborations, the FHC will conduct:

1. biological research to understand and enhance genetically-based tree resistance and thus improve forest ecosystem responses to biotic and abiotic stressors;

2. social research on the economic and cultural impacts of tree, forest, and ecosystem loss, as well as the factors affecting the adoption of new approaches to improve forest resilience; and

3. education and outreach programs to inform stakeholders, researchers, and the general public about forest health issues and to connect them through participatory research networks.

A USFS grant ($350,000), UK and KDF institutional resources ($210,000) and private gifts ($300,000), are currently funding the FHC for an initial two-year period. However, to put the FHC on a financial foundation necessary for accomplishing the objectives outlined above, the FHC will be requesting modest additional recurring federal support.

Terms: Research