Alaska's Ancient Yellow Cedars Clear Hurdle Toward Endangered Species Act Listing

For Immediate Release

Contact: 

Rebecca Noblin, Center for Biological Diversity, (907) 274-1110
Joel Hanson, The Boat Company, (907) 747-9834
David Beebe, Greater Southeast Alaska Conservation Community, (907) 340-6888
Larry Edwards, Greenpeace, (907) 747-7557

Alaska's Ancient Yellow Cedars Clear Hurdle Toward Endangered Species Act Listing

Tongass Trees Threatened by Climate Change, Logging Would Be First Alaska Tree Ever Given Federal Protection

ANCHORAGE, Alaska - The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced today that Alaska yellow cedar trees may warrant protection under the Endangered Species Act because of ongoing threats from climate change and logging. Vast swaths of yellow cedars have died off in the past century, with more than 70 percent of these long-lived, beautiful trees now dead in many areas of Alaska.

If listed, yellow cedar would be the first Alaska tree species, and only the second plant in the state, protected by the Endangered Species Act. Yellow cedars (Calliptropsis nootkatensis) are killed as the climate changes, with spring temperatures warming and snow cover being more frequently insufficient to protect the roots. A lack of snow exposes this species’ shallow, fragile roots to freezing temperatures that can kill them. Despite the trees’ decline, timber sales in the Tongass National Forest selectively target remaining living yellow cedars because of the wood’s unusual qualities and its exceptionally high market value.

“Yellow cedars have joined the long line of species headed for extinction because of the climate crisis,” said Rebecca Noblin, Alaska director at the Center for Biological Diversity. “These trees are tough and have survived where others can’t, but all their unique defenses are useless against a warming climate. The Fish and Wildlife Service must protect yellow cedars immediately so we can turn this around.”

“A Forest Service report acknowledges that Tongass timber sale planners select project areas with a higher than average cedar component and plan timber projects that extract cedar at a higher rate than its occurrence in the project areas,” said Greenpeace forest campaigner Larry Edwards. “For example, while yellow cedar is 9.5 percent of the growing stock on the south Tongass, it is 17 percent of the timber volume in the controversial Big Thorne project.”

“There is a double perverse incentive for the Forest Service to log yellow cedar disproportionately to its natural occurrence — that is, to high-grade it,” said David Beebe, president of the Greater Southeast Alaska Conservation Community. “First, this species has exceptionally high market and stumpage values. Also, by law the agency cannot offer timber sales that appraise to a negative sale value, and boosting the proportion of high-value cedar in a timber sale is a way to overcome that.”

Yellow cedars are found from southeast Alaska to Northern California and are most common in the Tongass, in Alaska and British Columbia. These trees are a central part of the region’s forests, historically greatly valued by Alaska natives for carving, medicinal and ceremonial purposes; they are also an important food source for Sitka black-tailed deer and brown bears. They hold massive amounts of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide, and their extinction would be a devastating loss.

“When we first started offering nature-based wilderness cruises in southeast Alaska 35 years ago,” said Joel Hanson of The Boat Company, “the region’s predominant mixed-conifer slopes generally looked healthy, with only a few dead-standing yellow cedars in evidence here and there. But now we see mile after mile of slopes where almost all the yellow cedar trees are dead. We should be protecting remaining healthy stands of this species wherever they may still be found in the region, not clearcutting them.”

As the climate warms, scientists predict, suitable habitat for yellow cedar trees will disappear. More than 600,000 acres of dead yellow cedar forests are already readily visible from the air. If greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise at their current rates, the tree will be driven to extinction. Reducing greenhouse gas emissions, while at the same time eliminating any live-tree harvest by logging, is the yellow cedar’s best hope for survival.

Today’s 90-day finding triggers a legal requirement for the Service to make a decision on whether listing is warranted by June 24, 2015. The petition to list the yellow cedar was filed by the Center for Biological Diversity, The Boat Company, the Greater Southeast Alaska Conservation Community and Greenpeace in June 2014.

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At the Center for Biological Diversity, we believe that the welfare of human beings is deeply linked to nature - to the existence in our world of a vast diversity of wild animals and plants. Because diversity has intrinsic value, and because its loss impoverishes society, we work to secure a future for all species, great and small, hovering on the brink of extinction. We do so through science, law, and creative media, with a focus on protecting the lands, waters, and climate that species need to survive.

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