JUNEAU — One of these Alaska tree saplings is not like the others. Each one of its needle-covered branches resembles a feather, each feather comprised of green scales.
Young yellow cedars like this one droop more than the common conifers, Sitka spruce and western hemlock. And on this Juneau trail, it's the only yellow cedar in sight.
Yellow cedars grow from Northern California to Prince William Sound. But in the southern portion of its range in Alaska, yellow cedar has declined so extensively, it's classified as a severe forest die-off. Some conservationists worry that it could become the first tree to go extinct due to climate change.
Reduced snow cover induced by warmer winters is considered the main cause of the die-offs. With less snow cover providing insulation, root systems can freeze.
The status of yellow cedar, a slow-growing tree that can live 1,200 years, is under review by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which is considering federal protection for the trees as either threatened or endangered. A listing petition was submitted in 2014 by three environmental groups and a tour company that operates in Southeast Alaska.
With their long lifespan, yellow cedars fill an important ecological role in the forest. Both their leaves and surrounding soils host unique bacterial communities. Yellow cedar trees offer chemical diversity to a coastal ecosystem made up of few tree species. And this distinctive chemistry gets recycled through the forest. Deer rely on yellow cedar too, eating seedlings and seeking shelter beneath mature trees.
Valued by carvers
The U.S. Forest Service calls yellow cedar the most valuable timber harvested in Alaska. Its wood is easy to carve yet retains hardness and resists rotting — qualities that make it particularly valued by Native carvers.
A recent report on yellow cedar shared the following Haida origin legend:
Long ago, when the world was not as it is now, Raven, the great creator and trickster came across three young women who were drying salmon on the beach. Ever hungry, the wily bird approached the women and asked. "Are you not afraid of bears?" And again they replied. "No." Persistent, Raven asked if they were afraid of wolves, marten and various other creatures. Each time they answered no, until he mentioned owls, at which time the three women confessed their terrible fear of owls.
Raven went off and quickly hid himself in some nearby bushes, where he began making owl calls. Terrified, the women fled, running and running until they were halfway up the mountain. They stopped, finally, out of breath. Standing together on the mountainside, the three of them turned into yellow cedar trees. That is why yellow cedars are always found on high slopes and why they are so beautiful; their long graceful branches and silky inner bark resemble the women's hair and their young trunks are smooth to the touch.
A decision whether to list yellow cedar as endangered is expected next year. If listed, the yellow cedar would become Alaska's first threatened or endangered tree and join the Aleutian fern as the only Alaska plants listed.
Part of a 12-month review for protection of yellow cedar was published in January. The U.S. Forest Service compiled current research on the species to create one integrated report that will help Fish and Wildlife in its upcoming decision.
Slow to adapt
Paul Hennon, a Forest Service pathologist and lead research author, said the health of yellow cedar varies markedly throughout its range.
In many parts of Southeast Alaska, the species is disappearing faster than it can re-grow. But in northern portions of the Panhandle, the tree appears healthy and projections are optimistic. Mass die-offs have not been documented in the Lower 48, either. Down south, yellow cedar is most common at high elevations. Botanists say it's unclear why this region has avoided pandemic mortalities. But overall, yellow cedars have been dying in large numbers over the past century, according to the U.S. Forest Service. Sixty percent to 70 percent of yellow cedars in a 600,000-acre area of Alaska and British Columbia have been affected, with large areas of dead, dried-out trees standing in the forest, according to the Forest Service.
"The climate is probably changing more rapidly than a tree's ability to migrate, to adapt," Hennon said.
And though yellow cedar may be in trouble, extinction is not likely by 2080, according to the report. "As a species, it's going through some flux now, but it and its relatives have been on Earth for many millions of years," Hennon said.
During winter, temperatures in the Tongass often hover near 32 degrees. New growth on yellow cedar saplings is bright even in winter. Its thin trunk transitions from thick, barky brown to newly grown green. The tree's branches reach out from the hillside toward dwindling winter sun.
Limp but healthy branches curve toward moss, and within it the sapling's roots swarm. Beneath a layer of moss, the sapling secures itself to sturdy granite rock.
It's a young tree in a young forest. There are hundreds of other saplings in sight, but this is the only yellow cedar.
And it's an exceptional sapling. It has survived eight winters, avoided deer predation and gets stronger every year.
But as a species, yellow cedar has an unknown future.
Does this sapling know it?
Theresa Soley is a Southeast Alaska freelance writer.