Culturally valuable yellow cedar on the decline

Wayne Price works on a 12-foot-tall totem pole in his Haines studio. (Photo: Emily Files/KHNS)

Yellow cedar trees grow from the top of California, all the way to Alaska, and according to a recent study, the Southeast part of the state could be the hardest hit with yellow cedar’s decline, due to the planet heating up. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has been petitioned to put yellow cedar on the endangered species list. The wood is commercially valuable. It’s culturally valuable, too.

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Wayne Price is working on a 12-foot-tall totem pole in his studio in Haines. He uses a tool called an adz to shape an eagle and wolf design. He’s about six months into the project, which includes carving not one but two totems.

“All of it’s made out of yellow cedar,” Price said.

When it’s finished, it will make up a new sign for the local veterans housing complex.

Price has been carving for about 45 years. He said what makes yellow cedar a good material is that it’s resistant to rot. Traditionally, Alaska Native people used the bark from yellow cedar to weave blankets and clan hats. They used the trees to carve paddles and canoes.

Price said there’s a Tlingit creation story that highlights its importance:

“The killer whale was made out of red cedar and it floated too high. And it was made out of spruce it didn’t last very long,” Price said. “But when it was carved out of yellow cedar that it floated right and was given life and was the creation of the killer whales.”

Price buys most of his yellow cedar from a small mill in Hoonah. But in the past decade, while out on the water, he’s noticed more dead standing trees.

And he’s not alone.

“Essentially, yellow cedar is freezing to death,” Brian Buma said. Buma is an assistant professor of forest ecosystems at the University of Alaska Southeast.

Buma recently released a paper on how much yellow cedar could decline across its entire range. His team pinpointed actual yellow cedar trees from California to Prince William Sound. With current climate projections, Buma was able to capture a glimpse of what that future could look like for yellow cedar.

“It’s suggesting major changes. We don’t think that it’s going to go extinct in 50 or 60 years but it is going to look like a very different forest in large parts of Southeast,” Buma said.

A map of yellow cedar decline. (Photo: Brian Buma/University of Alaska Southeast)

Buma said, so far, about 7 percent of the range of yellow cedar has been lost. That number might sound small, but it’s actually about a million acres of trees. In the next half century or so, another 8 percent could be lost.

Buma said yellow cedar is particularly vulnerable in the spring. In a normal year, a blanket of snow is there to insulate the roots.

“Climate change is taking away that blanket. So when the temperature goes to 33 on average, say, during the winter, we don’t get snow, we get rain,” Buma said. “And if we do get a cold snap, the soil gets very, very cold and that kills yellow cedar roots, essentially.”

Buma said scientists started to notice the decline of yellow cedar back in the 1980s. Now it’s one of the best documented cases of a tree species affected by a warming planet.

Ricky Tagaban has been weaving in the Chilkat tradition for about seven years. He’s soaking yellow cedar strips in warm water, preparing to spin them with merino wool into warp, a stiff thread he’ll use to weave commissioned items, or one of his commercial pieces: iPhone bags, pendants and long woven earrings.

“When I became a full-time weaver it was really crucial for me to learn how to make my own warp,” Tagaban said. “Because before I would have to save up a lot of money to buy enough just to start a project.”

Friends who weave baskets sometimes give Tagaban yellow cedar scraps. He’s also gone out a couple of times to collect it himself. He said he is worried about the die-off of yellow cedar, but he doesn’t think that government officials should be in charge of its management.

“The point of colonization is outside groups coming in and controlling resources,” Tagaban said.

Ricky Tagaban prepares yellow cedar strips to weave into warp. (Photo by Elizabeth Jenkins/Alaska’s Energy Desk)

Tagaban said for thousands of years, indigenous people collected yellow cedar sustainably.

“If you compare the way of life that came out of the 10,000 years of stewardship, with the changes that have happened just in the last 200 years. It’s insane the difference,” Tagaban said. “So the words like management, management is not stewardship.”

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service was petitioned to put yellow cedar on the endangered species list in 2014. But it still has a ways to go before a decision is made. A Fish and Wildlife spokesperson said there’s a backlog, due to federal funding issues.

Tagaban hopes to still be weaving in the next 50 years. And he hopes there’s enough yellow cedar for future generations to weave, too.