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Forests, Not Coal, Are Where the Jobs Are

The Appalachians are home to some of the world’s most vibrant forests and sustainable use opportunities.
Photo via Skitterphoto

This is an opinion piece by the Rainforest Alliance.

The forests of the Southern and Central Appalachian are truly something special. They are one of the world's richest temperate deciduous forests in terms of biodiversity, including a high number of species existing nowhere else in the world. There is a greater diversity of tree species in the region than anywhere else in North America, and the Clinch River watershed, rising out of the coal fields of southwest Virginia, supports more rare species of freshwater mussels and fish than any river system in North America.


Besides gorgeous colors in the fall and wildflowers in the spring, this landscape is also home to a declining coal industry. Coal is widely known to be environmentally destructive and carbon intensive industry, literally flattening mountaintops in the region while posing a serious risk to human health. Luckily, with the advent of renewable energy, coal is on its way out—but that leaves an economic gap to be filled.

Forestry, another traditional industry that has long provided economic development to the region, is poised to thrive. In 2016, the forest products industry employed 60,225 people in Kentucky alone—compare that to the coal industry, which only employed 76,572 people across the country in 2014. Forestry is one of the largest sectors of the Appalachian economy, providing thousands of sustainable jobs and supporting billions in economic activity—especially critical in rural areas.

That's why the Rainforest Alliance and forest products companies including Avery Dennison, Columbia Forest Products, Evergreen Packaging, Domtar, Kimberly-Clark and Staples banded together to form the Appalachian Woodlands Alliance, an organization dedicated to increasing sustainable forestry practices among landowners.

There's great economic and ecological value in the Appalachian woodlands, such opportunity for an industry that supports life and health. The Appalachian Woodlands Alliance aims to demonstrate those values to private forestland owners, providing resources to make it easier to plan for a sustainable future. Additionally, the AWA works to meet and increase consumer demand, creating a virtuous cycle of sustainable supply and demand for landowners.


About 60 percent of the valuable Appalachian woodlands are privately owned, whether in small parcels by individuals or by small businesses. These landowners can earn income by selling timber—an economic opportunity right out the back door. And "selling timber" doesn't have to mean an ugly clear-cut down the side of the mountain, or razing the backyard to stumps. Resources and trainings from the Appalachian Woodlands Alliance show landowners how to undertake smaller harvests over time, with management that charts out the forest's future in terms of generations, rather than years. It can mean a landscape that supports financial gain, wildlife habitat, amazing biodiversity, and clean water and air.

The Appalachian Woodland Alliance's project region map.

But it's all a choice the landowner has to make, and the forest products industry is well aware that landowners' decisions are critical to their current and future supply of sustainably managed timber. What's needed is a massive scale-up in engaging these woodland owners.

Of course, the forestry industry has its own troubled past. But industry practices have come a long way from the pillage of centuries past when mountainsides were recklessly stripped bare of trees, with no consideration towards stewardship or the health of nearby communities. Today, leading forest products companies compete on environmental performance, winning business by proving their products come from well-managed forests.


Green is mainstream, and society's expectations for corporate environmental performance are likely to intensify. In this new marketplace, the forest products business, an old and traditional industry, will continue to face the challenge of greening its practices. The path forward for this industry includes a transparent sourcing, showcasing the well-managed woodlands of Appalachia and the virtues of choosing forest products that support the region's rich biodiversity, beauty and rural economies.

The view from Doubletop Mountain in Balsam, North Carolina.

Getting involved in the sustainable forestry movement can be as simple as looking for Forest Stewardship Council® (FSC) certified products—look for the checkmark-tree seal for proof that the toilet paper or tissues you're buying come from responsibly-managed forests.

To go deeper into the issues, cultivate a love and knowledge of the forest around you. Spend time getting to know the streams and trees in your area. Learn about how humans have interacted with the forest over time, and what issues currently exist. (You might be surprised by how many there are.) Find out what your local representatives have to say about forest use, and don't take a backseat to forest-use choices in your area.

To support jobs and communities in the Appalachian region, check out the Rainforest Alliance (the lead nonprofit on the Appalachian Woodlands Alliance), the Dogwood Alliance, or Heartwood. Donations are the most effective way to support these organizations, but volunteering is good too.