As published in the Daily Sitka Sentinel on July 16, 2014
Four environmental groups have filed a petition to make the Alaskan yellow-cedar, an important tree to Tlingit carvers, an endangered species.
However, some petitioners believe that the protection might not be enough to save the species.
"It's almost like we're too late with the petition, but hopefully not," said Kiersten Lippmann of Anchorage, who is with the Center for Biological Diversity.
The center, along with the Greater Southeast Alaska Conservation Community, Greenpeace and The Boat Company, an organization that runs charter tours through Southeast waters, submitted a petition to the Fish and Wildlife Service last month asking for federal protection of yellow-cedar under the Endangered Species Act.
"They are on the downward swing, very dramatically, so something needs to be done," said Larry Edwards, of Sitka, an Alaska Forest Campaigner of Greenpeace. "We'll do whatever we can to help the process along."
Yellow-cedars have been dying off for about 100 years, U.S. Forest Service research finds. There is now more than half-million acres of dead cedar forests. The preliminary conclusion is that climate change is the cause.
The research has shown that decreasing snowfall in the region is allowing the shallow roots of the trees to freeze, causing the trees to die. Snow acts like a blanket and insulates the soil beneath, and also provides more water for the trees in the springtime when it melts.
Yellow-cedar trees can live to be more than 800 years old and are naturally very resistant to rot and disease. These qualities make its wood ideal for use as a building material that will be exposed to water and Southeast Alaska's rainy climate.
Its soft wood and fine grain make it a favorite wood for Native carvers.
"It's not just a natural resource, but a cultural resource," Janet Drake, a park ranger at the Sitka National Historic Park, said. With no red cedar in the area, the yellow-cedar is a beautiful, local wood for people to use, she said.
Obtaining endangered species status for a plant or animal takes more than one and a half years if the Fish and Wildlife Service in Washington, D.C. meets all deadlines for acting on the petition. Unfortunately, Lippmann said, usually those deadlines are not met on time.
And on top of that, the federal protection cannot stop the effects from climate change. It would only live trees from being cut down.
At present the Aleutian holly fern is the only federally protected plant in Alaska, says the Natural Resources Conservation Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
While conservation groups spearhead the petition efforts, some local carvers worry about the classification of yellow-cedar as endangered. Tlingit carvers Tommy Joseph and Robert Koffman, both of Sitka, voiced concerns about losing access to wood supplies if the petition should succeed.
Joseph said that he likes using yellow-cedar because of its durable qualities. "It's softer but it will outlast all the others," he said.
Koffman, who also works at the Sheldon Jackson Museum, said the tight grain of yellow-cedar allows him to put more detail into his carvings. He said it would be best if there is a clause allowing subsistence harvest of yellow-cedar in order to protect carvers' livelihood.
"If it is a disappearing species there should be protections," Koffman said, but added: "I think a limited amount of wood should be made available to Native artists."
Petitioners argue that the real enemy is commercial timber sales, not the amount used for carving.
"If you can at least limit logging, you can give the species a little bit of resilience in the face of climate change," Lippmann said.