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Groups seek Endangered Species Act listing for Southeast Alaska tree

Yereth RosenAlaska Dispatch News
Yellow cedar in West Chichagof-Yakobi Wilderness Area. Several groups have petitioned the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to issue a listing for the Yellow cedar under the Endangered Species Act. Paul Hennon / USFWS

Yellow cedars, slow-growing trees that are withering and dying in the temperate rainforest of Southeast Alaska and British Columbia, should get Endangered Species Act protections, said a petition submitted Tuesday by an three environmental organizations and a tour company operating in Southeast.

The petition, submitted to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, seeks to make the yellow cedar the first Alaska tree and the second Alaska plant to gain a listing under the Endangered Species Act. The Aleutian shield fern, a plant found only on Adak Island in the central Aleutians, is the other plant listed under the act, first added as endangered in 1988.

Yellow cedars deserve similar protections because of their vulnerability to climate change and logging, the petition says.

Unless there are “drastic reductions in greenhouse gas emissions and a ban on all live-logging removals,” the decline will continue, the petition says.

“The devastating effects of climate change on this species, combined with unsustainable logging that directly targets yellow-cedar, will lead to its extinction. Yellow-cedar is unlikely to survive this century unless the species is protected under the Endangered Species Act,” the petition says.

Vast stretches of yellow cedars in and around the Tongass National Forest have died off over the past several decades, with about 70 percent of the region’s trees now afflicted, according to the U.S. Forest Service.

Forest Service researchers in 2012 identified the culprit: a changing climate that has thinned or eliminated snow layers that are needed to insulate the ground and protect the trees’ shallow, fine roots from freezing. The problems are most severe in late winter and spring, when snow cover is reduced or erased by freeze-thaw events and rains that have become more frequent in warmer conditions, according to the Forest Service’s Pacific Northwest Research Station.

The groups petitioning to list yellow cedars -- the three environmental organizations and a tour company operating in Southeast Alaska -- say Tongass logging poses a secondary threat.

Yellow cedar trees that survive the climate problem are needed to protect genetic diversity and ensure survival of the species, said Kiersten Lippman, a biologist with the Center for Biological Diversity, one of the groups petitioning for listing. However, “they’re the ones being targeted by the logging industry,” she said.

Listing would spare those yellow cedars from logging, even if other trees are cut down, Lippman said.

Yellow cedars grow in areas that are more difficult and expensive to log -- boggy and rocky areas with acidic soils, she said.

“They grow in places where other trees don’t like to grow,” she said.

Along with the Center for Biological Diversity, petitioners for listing are Greenpeace, the Greater Southeast Alaska Conservation Community and The Boat Company.

The Center for Biological Diversity, Greenpeace and The Boat Company are also pushing for Endangered Species Act listing of the Alexander Archipelago wolf, another Tongass species. The groups last week filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C., that seeks to compel the Fish and Wildlife Service to make what they contend is a much-delayed decision on that listing petition.

Andrea Medeiros, Alaska spokesperson for the Fish and Wildlife Service, said the agency is generally responsible for terrestrial and freshwater species under the ESA, which includes trees like the yellow cedar.

"The service will be looking at the petition and information submitted to determine if further consideration of the species for listing under the ESA is warranted," Medeiros said.

Yellow cedars, found as far north as Alaska’s Prince William Sound area, are droopy-branched conifers that can live as long as 1,000 years, according to the Forest Service. They are traditionally used by the region’s Native people for carving. The tree is also used to make traditional medicines. Other names are used for the trees, including Alaska cedar, Nootka cedar, Sitka cedar and Sitka cypress.

The Aleutian shield fern, the only Alaska plant currently protected by the Endangered Species Act, was first identified in 1932, according to the Fish and Wildlife Service. Its population is limited to about 142 clumps at four sites on Adak, according to the service. The closest living relatives to the Aleutian shield fern are plants in Asia, according to the service.

Contact Yereth Rosen at yereth@alaskadispatch.com