By Brandon Carmack
Trees are woody plants with a distinct stem, or trunk. They are usually the tallest of plants, and their height and single main stem differentiate them from shrubs. Trees are perennials that live at least three years. Some tree species are extremely short but others may reach a height of more than 367 feet. The General Sherman Tree, a giant sequoia in Californias Sequoia National Park, has a height of 275 feet and a diameter of 37 feet. The largest trees are not always the oldest. The bristlecone pine, for example, grows to a height of only 30 feet but one specimen has been dated to be at least 4600 years old.
There are two general types of trees, angiosperms and gymnosperms. Angiosperms are flowering plants that have a seed. They include maples and oaks, which are dominant species in Kentucky. Gymnosperms, on the other hand, do not bear flowers. Their seeds lie exposed in structures such as cones or fleshy cups called arils. This group includes conifers, gingkos, and cycads.
Trees grow throughout the world, from the icy regions near the Arctic to the steaming tropical regions near the equator. They may grow along steep cliffs, in swamps and deserts, and on mountaintops at even the highest of elevations. Although trees can grow alone, most grow in strands, which consists of one species or a mixture of species. A forest is a plant community that is made up of the trees, shrubs, and herbs that cover an area.
Forests provide many social, economic, and environmental benefits. Forest provide wildlife habitat and recreational opportunities, prevent soil erosion and flooding, and help to provide clean air and water. Forests are also an important defense against global climate change. Through a process known as photosynthesis, plants exchange the oxygen that is necessary for life with carbon dioxide, the chemical most responsible for global warming. By decreasing the amount of carbon dioxide forests may reduce the effects of global warming.
In the United States, forests are threatened by extensive logging, called clear-cutting, which destroys much of the plant and animal habitats and leaves the landscape bare. Until the 1990s, the U.S. Forest Service was directed by Congress to maximize the amount of timber harvested in order to provide jobs. In the late 80s and early 90s, environmentalists sued the government for violating the National Environmental Policy Act. As a result, the amount of timber harvested was reduced and foresters were directed to follow a policy known as ecosystem management. This requires foresters to focus on conserving natural habitats rather than concentrating on the number of trees being harvested.
To understand while Congress directs most environmental services you must know the ecological function of trees. Trees protest our land against erosion and provide protection for the wind. Tree roots help solidify soil in times of heavy rain, and they may actually store water reserves that act as buffers for the ecosystem during periods of drought. Trees provide habitats, and in some cases food, for animals.
Trees also have many economical uses. Lumber from trees is used to build homes and other structures. Also, many trees yield edible fruits and nuts such as apples, oranges, pecans, peaches, bananas, and etc. Trees and their fruits are the source for many waxes and oils, including olive oil and coconut oil. Tree trunks are tapped for sap, which is used to make many products such as maple syrup, rubber, and turpentine. The bark from some species of trees is sources for corks and spices. Many trees are also used to yield important medicines, such as quinine.
Before Kentucky was extensively settled forests covered much of the state. Although two-fifths of the land is still covered with trees much of the forestland is made up of secondary trees. Most of the forests in Kentucky include numerous species of trees. In the Appalachian Plateau region the dominant species are the tulip popular, the American Beech, white basswood, sweet buckeye, red oak, white oak, and sugar maple. The state tree of Kentucky, the Kentucky coffeetree, is also found in this region. Oaks, pines, gums, and hickories dominate most of the area to the west of the Appalachians.
Conservation programs in Kentucky are largely focused on flood control and soil conservation, although some programs are more focused on plant and animal life. Federal Agencies that administer conservation programs in Kentucky include the United States Forest Service, the Natural Resources Conservation Service, the National Park Service, the United States Army Corps of Engineers, the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, and the Tennessee Valley Authority. The major agency in Kentucky that is focused on conservation is the Natural Resources and Environmental Protection Cabinet. In the early 1990s Kentucky spent 1.6 of its annual budget on the environment, putting in the middle two-thirds of the states.
Trees not only provide us with air to breathe and many of the products we know and use, but they also add beauty and life to land that would otherwise be boring. Life cannot survive without oxygen and the only source of oxygen that is large enough to support a great population like that here on earth is trees. So we must do our part in protecting our environment and not destroy the magnificence that this area has to offer.