There are very few species that are as iconic a part of the Pacific Northwest as the Western Red Cedar tree. Sure, Orcas and Salmon give Cedar a run for the money, but especially when it comes to the landscape here, Western Red Cedar is one of the species that simply encompasses the world of Cascadia in a nutshell.
And, I'm here to tell you that Western Red Cedars may be virtually extinct within a generation, and no one is doing anything about it. What's worse is I think most people aren't actually aware of what's going on.
The importance of Cedar to the land, the ecology, and to the people of the Pacific Northwest cannot be overstated. It is a keystone species for healthy forests, a vital part of providing the right conditions for salmon runs to be restored, and it may be the single most important ethnobotanical species for local Indigenous folks.
Cedar are so intimately connected with Salmon, that traces of salmon DNA have literally been found inside Western Red Cedar trees that line certain river and stream banks. Cedars provide essential shade and cooling of the water, and in turn as salmon return, mate, and die their bodies become an incredible source of nutrients for the animals, plants, and trees nearby including for Cedars.
From an ethnobotanical perspective, if you had to design a perfect tree species that would aid humans in living successfully in the wet, lush and somewhat cold landscape of the Pacific Northwest, you probably couldn't design something better than Western Red Cedar. In fact, when you look at what you can actually do with just one tree species most people are struck with disbelief. Here's just a few of the things that Wester Red Cedar has been used for traditionally:
1) As a medicine for respiratory and urinary tract infections. As a natural anti-fungal medicine
2) As an incredible resource for making fire including being used for both bow-drill and hand-drill kits, providing incredible tinder in all conditions, and even making excellent kindling.
3) Literally being able to be made into clothes including rain hats, raincoats, shawls, skirts, and more
4) Made into baskets of all kinds including everything from berry gathering to cooking food
5) Being used as the primary and main traditional wood in longhouses in part due to its incredible ability to be naturally split into very, very long straight planks and it's natural anti-fungal, ant-microbial, rot-resistant qualities.
6) Being the main wood used in making traditional canoes
This is just the beginning of the list, and just what I'm familiar with as a casual ethnobotanist. It also has a huge role as a ceremonial and sacred plant. In fact, Western Red Cedar is said to be so powerful, so healing that simply touching the tree has a healing impact on people.
So, what exactly is happening with cedars and why are they under threat? And, perhaps more importantly why is nobody really noticing?
I plan to unpack these questions over several blogs and hope to open our eyes and possibly offer some solutions as well. But, here are the simple reasons that are the biggest current threat to cedars:
1) While Washington is known as the Evergreen state and it is a state where the western third is still covered by a fair amount of forest, what most people don't realize is that the vast majority of that forest is now timberland that is now heavily dominated by monocultural Douglas Fir trees that are considered a much more valuable tree for logging purposes. In these "forests", Western Red Cedar is actively destroyed and suppressed through chemical and other means.
2) In general, there is a continued loss of forest habitat through out the Cascadia bioregion as more and more development removes more and more forests, especially decently healthy second and third growth forests that have a healthy number of cedars.
3) Climate change and the recent droughts and heatwaves have had a devastating impact on Western Red Cedars. While some trees such as Douglas Fir seem to do alright during these extreme conditions, Cedars are clearly dying. In particular, young Western Red Cedars seem particularly susceptible to the heat, sun, and dryness. To further complicate matters, several of my friends and colleagues (naturalist and trackers trained in nature awareness and observation) as well as myself have noticed that the stress on Cedars seems to go up dramatically from wildfire smoke. Something we are seeing more and more frequently here in the summer and early fall months.
While this situation is sad, daunting, and more than a little overwhelming, it is possible to make a positive, powerful change around this situation. But, I believe it all needs to start with a deeper awareness of what is really going on with Western Red Cedar.
More to come...