Conservation groups file petition with US Fish & Wildlife Service to protect Alaska's yellow cedars under Endangered Species Act, claim trees are dying in warming climate as lack of snow cover freezes roots, but continue to be targeted for timber sales
June 24, 2014
– Cedars Threatened by Climate Change, Logging Would Be First Alaska Tree Ever Given Federal Protection
Conservation groups filed a formal petition today to protect yellow cedar trees under the Endangered Species Act because of ongoing threats from climate change and logging. Vast swaths of yellow cedars have died off in the past century, with more than 70 percent of these long-lived, beautiful trees now dead in many areas of Alaska. If approved, yellow cedar would be the first Alaska tree species, and only the second plant in the state, protected by the Endangered Species Act.
Yellow cedar (Calliptropsis nootkatensis) are killed as the climate changes, spring temperatures warm, and snow melts: A lack of snow exposes their fragile roots to freezing temperatures, resulting in root freezing and tree death. Despite the trees’ decline, timber sales selectively target remaining living yellow cedar because of the wood’s high quality and market value.
“Unless we act now, yellow cedar will join the long line of species headed for extinction because of the climate crisis,” said Kiersten Lippmann, a biologist with the Center for Biological Diversity. “While the tree is naturally highly resistant to rot, disease and insects, it has no defense against a warming climate. Our actions caused this decline, and our actions can save it — if we act right now.”
“It is long overdue that scarce resources such as 1,000-year-old cedars get the legal scrutiny and protections they deserve,” said Joe Mehrkens, Greater Southeast Alaska Conservation Community board member.
Yellow cedar is found from southeast Alaska to Northern California and is most common in the Tongass of Alaska and British Columbia. These trees are a central part of the region’s forests, historically greatly valued by Alaska natives for carving, medicinal and ceremonial purposes; they’re also an important food source for Sitka deer and brown bears. They hold massive amounts of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide, and their extinction would be a devastating loss.
“Yellow cedar is a key part of the coastal forests of Alaska and British Columbia, and its loss would leave a gaping hole in this extraordinary rainforest,” said Lippmann. “If we don’t take action quickly, we’re going to lose so many iconic Alaska species.”
“When we first started offering nature-based wilderness cruises in southeast Alaska 35 years ago,” said Hunter McIntosh of The Boat Company, “the region’s predominant mixed-conifer slopes generally looked healthy, with only a few dead-standing yellow cedars in evidence here and there. But now we see mile after mile of slopes where almost all the yellow cedar trees are dead. We should be protecting the remaining healthy mixed-conifer enclaves wherever they may still be found in the region, not clearcutting them.”
As the climate warms, scientists predict, suitable habitat for yellow cedar will disappear. More than 600,000 acres of dead forests are already readily visible from the air. If greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise at their current rates, researchers predict that the tree will be driven to extinction. Projections show yellow cedar inhabiting only tiny fragments of their former range by the year 2085. Reducing greenhouse gas emissions, while at the same time eliminating any live-tree harvest by logging, is yellow cedar’s best hope for survival.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service must respond to the petition — filed by the Center for Biological Diversity, The Boat Company, Greater Southeast Alaska Conservation Community and Greenpeace — in 90 days and determine whether listing is warranted within one year.
The Center for Biological Diversity is a national, nonprofit conservation organization with more than 775,000 members and online activists dedicated to the protection of endangered species and wild places.
The Boat Company is a nonprofit educational and charitable organization with a 35-year history of offering wilderness cruises in southeast Alaska, helping to build a strong constituency for wildlife and wildlands conservation through personal experience.
GSACC's mission is to defend and promote the biological integrity of Southeast Alaska’s terrestrial, freshwater, and marine ecosystems for the benefit of current and future generations.
Greenpeace is the leading independent campaigning organization that uses peaceful protest and creative communication to expose global environmental problems and to promote solutions that are essential to a green and peaceful future.