Has This Iconic Northwest Tree Reached A Tipping Point?

iconic northwest trees

Six years have gone since Bruce Albert saw a dozen Western red cedars on his property die suddenly and mysteriously. The trees didn’t exhibit any symptoms of a lethal insect or pathogen, yet they succumbed to an unidentified perpetrator in the course of a single season.

In the neighbourhood, Douglas firs, maples, alders, black cottonwoods, and more than a dozen remaining red cedars are still standing and, in some cases, prospering today. Albert finds it strange. The 70-year-old stated that there was no pattern to it. In the Pacific Northwest, red cedars have displayed similar symptoms.

4000 Years Back

It is a native of the Pacific Coast of North America and one of the most prevalent conifers in this area. In the fertile soils of British Columbia, the plant initially established itself thousands of years ago. It has been determined that red cedar tools discovered in Yuquot, a small town on Vancouver Island, date as far back as 4,000 years.

iconic northwest trees past

Now, from California to Alaska, it can be found in both young groves and old forests. The tree is essential to Sam Barr’s art, spirituality, and way of life as a Samish tribal member and manager of the Stillaguamish Tribe’s historic preservation office. Because it offers necessities for surviving in life, “many people refer to the cedar tree as a grandma,” Barr added.

The Usefulness Of The Tree

Indigenous societies have made a variety of items out of red cedar, including dwellings, canoes, totem poles, rope, instruments, utensils, bowls, blankets, and baskets. The tree is perfect for use in boats, roofs, and garments because of its natural oils and buoyancy, which also help make it water- and rot-resistant. The tree was also helpful to white settlers for making shingles, a use that persists today, as well as to Northwesterners in the area for making decks and fences among other things.

People Are Very Depended On Them

For fourteen years, he has been gathering materials from the tree to make drums, canoe paddles, drums, tools, and artwork in the style of the Coast Salish people. The tree not only gives him the resources he needs to build and carve, but it also gives him a link to his predecessors and their past.

The region’s woodlands and its inhabitants have relied on the trees for stability and existence for thousands of years. Elk are able to survive throughout the winter months when food is in short supply by eating scaly, green-blue leaves decorated with little, oval cones that hang from sagging branches.

iconic northwest trees people

Wrapping around a robust trunk that provides shelter for bears or valuable material for people is the striped wood, which is fibrous and forgiving and covered in a delicate covering of the distinctive red bark. Since moving to Snohomish County in 1976, Albert has watched dozens of red cedars grow in his property. At that time, the area was known for its lush, forested corridors and copious rainfall, which made heat waves, droughts, and wildfires less frequent.

A Large Number Of Trees Are Gone

Numerous trees have been killed by diebacks throughout the region, but new research suggests that Western red cedars may never have featured so prominently or in such pronounced numbers west of the Cascades. Bolt Creek fire, which has been raging just beyond the next hill since early September, is an unsettling sign of future flames on the west side as summers get more severe and unpredictable.

The sick red cedars might be the most recent casualty of an increase in harsh weather occurrences. In their hunt for a cause, scientists point to a changing climate, but more time is needed to fully comprehend the nature and scope of the invisible threat threatening this treasured animal. The largest tree in the Pacific Northwest and one of the oldest in Western Washington is the Western red cedar, or Thuja plicata.

iconic northwest trees are gone

This Is Heartbreaking

Barr finds it difficult to imagine the loss of a species that is so crucial to the history and development of the region, especially one that is so priceless to First Nations’ cultural legacy should the dieback get worse. “You can feel how alive the tree is, you can feel the fluids that flow up and down the trunk,” he said. “When you peel the bark off the tree and lay your hand on the naked trunk.” “Almost like you can sense the heartbeat of the tree.”

What Researchers Has To Tell

Researchers from Washington State University, Portland State University, and Reed College have gathered about 30,000 cores, or small, cylindrical cross-sections taken from inside the tree to examine its age and health, from 280 red cedars at 11 sites in Washington and Oregon to examine potential differences between healthy red cedars and those experiencing dieback.

Early research points to the possibility that dieback is causing red cedar growth to sputter. Despite any prior health issues, scientists discovered that the species was generally developing together until around seven years ago, at the start of a nationwide dry spell.

As a result, Henry Adams, a researcher at WSU, explained, “They grow less and less until they die. Their behaviour changed significantly after 2015, according to his colleague and fellow author Robert Andrus. Beginning in that year, Washington experienced unusually hot and dry weather, which persisted until 2018.

Climate Is The Major Part

Seven of the ten hottest years in Washington since 1895 have occurred in the last 20 years. The state had an exceptional heat wave just ten years ago, with the famed “heat dome” of 2021 and an unprecedented drought in 2015 serving as its bookends.

iconic northwest trees and climate

Cedars had little time to recover in between each period of intense weather. Red cedars can typically withstand a brief heat wave or periodic drought. However, repeated incidents of this nature can gradually reduce a tree’s capacity to store water, grow, and defend itself against disease.

Because they are preparing for the upcoming dry season in May and June, red cedars are more sensitive to weather conditions, according to Adams. It might be the difference between life and death if that cycle is disrupted, as it was earlier this year when Washington experienced an exceptionally chilly and wet spring.

These Are Only Clues

They will grow much less if there is less moisture available during that time, according to Andrus. Additionally, they will stop growing much earlier. Even if these hints are useful, it’s too soon to draw any conclusions. The only thing we have are hypotheses, according to Fischer.

She advised cautious timber harvesting and suggested leaving more red cedars per harvested acre so that they had a cover to protect them. The main query is, “How do you currently manage for this species?”

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Hrithik Fernandez

Hrithik Fernandez Here, I moved from Srilanka and now am a resident of United States. I am currently an editor and have been in the teaching field for many years. I love meeting new people and getting to know them on a personal level. My skills include data science and I am a hard worker.

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