ANCHORAGE — Four conservation groups have petitioned the Interior Department to list an iconic Alaska tree as threatened or endangered because of climate change.
Yellow cedar for centuries has been carved by Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian people for canoe paddles and totem poles. They could remove a lengthwise strip of bark from a living tree to use for weaving baskets and hats, and as backing in blankets because the trees can compartmentalize the damage and heal themselves.
Yellow cedar can resist insects and rot and live more than 1,000 years but their shallow roots are vulnerable to freezing. Climate warming over the last century has been deadly.
In a paper published in 2012, U.S. Forest Service researchers concluded that climate warming has meant less snow, and less insulation for the ground. Elevated mortality began around 1880-1890 and peaked in the 1970s and 1980s, according to the study.
Across 781 square miles of Alaska’s Panhandle, more than 70 percent of yellow cedar trees have died because of root freeze induced by climate change, according to the petition.
The petition was filed to raise awareness and to take steps toward curbing warming, said Kiersten Lippmann of the Center for Biological Diversity.
Without steps to curb climate change, the diminishing snow pack means yellow cedar at higher elevations will be affected, according to the petition. Researchers have recorded almost no new sites where yellow cedar has regenerated.
“This is another species on the list that is not going to last until the end of the century because of climate change,” Lippmann said.
A listing would also protect remaining yellow cedar from logging, she said. Unsustainable old-growth logging continues to target yellow cedar in southeast Alaska and British Columbia and contribute to its rapid decline, she said, because of the honey-color wood’s value.
A yellow cedar listing would be the first for an Alaska tree and only the second plant listed for the state.
The other groups filing for yellow cedar protection are The Boat Company, a nonprofit educational organization that offers eco-cruises in southeast Alaska, the Greater Southeast Alaska Conservation Community and Greenpeace.