The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will consider making the yellow cedar the first Alaska tree to be granted Endangered Species Act protections. The conifer is afflicted by a long-term die-off linked to climate change.
The service on Thursday determined that the trees' poor condition warrants formal study of an endangered or threatened listing. The determination responds to a listing petition submitted last year by three environmental groups and a tour company that operates in Southeast Alaska.
The finding on yellow cedars, which is grouped with findings about nine animal species that were subjects of listing petitions, is scheduled to be published Friday in the Federal Register.
Yellow cedars grow in the Tongass National Forest and other parts of the rainforest of Southeast Alaska and British Columbia. The slow-growing trees, some of which are 700 to 1,200 years old, 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 die-off is caused by freeze damage to the trees' fine roots, Forest Service research has found. A shift of precipitation from snow to rain -- a result of climate warming in the region -- has resulted in a reduction of the ground insulation that snow provided, leaving yellow cedars' shallow roots vulnerable to freeze damage, especially in spring, the Forest Service found. The lack of snow has also changed soil drainage, contributing to a cascade of factors harming the trees, the research found.
Logging is another threat to yellow cedars, according to the environmental petitioners. The disputed Big Thorne timber sale in the Tongass National Forest encompasses an area where yellow cedars make up 17 percent of the trees, according to the listing petition, which cites the environmental impact statement issued by the Forest Service.
Yellow cedars are not true cedars but are part of the cypress family. They are also called Alaska cedar, Alaska cypress and Nootka cypress. They are important to indigenous cultures of the rainforest region, with wood used to make canoes, paddles, bowls and other objects.
The only Alaska plant that currently has an Endangered Species Act listing is the small Aleutian shield fern, found only on Adak Island.