March 19: Tacoma tree planting helps young scientists learn how redcedars can survive changing climate

Sparrow in a cedar tree
Found throughout the Pacific Northwest, Western redcedars are beautiful, iconic forest giants. Citizen-science efforts launched by a WSU researcher are helping communities understand and maintain redcedar survival.

The Western redcedar is an iconic Pacific Northwest tree, but it may need human help to stay healthy.

At 1 p.m. Saturday, March 19, volunteers will plant young redcedars at Tacoma’s Swan Creek Park in a grassroots, classroom-focused effort to learn how these distinctive, beautiful giants can stand up to our changing climate.

Valued for its natural beauty and soft, red timber, which resists decay and repels insects, redcedars can reach nearly 200 feet in height and live for more than a thousand years. Western redcedars have been historically found throughout the Northwest due to their tolerance for shade, flooding, and poor soils, thriving where other trees cannot.

Over the last few years, however, scientists have observed an increasing number of dead and dying trees. Mortality begins with dieback, in which the tops and branches die from the tips. Some specimens survive, but the condition can also kill. Researchers believe the problem is spurred by longer, hotter droughts.

Enlisting community scientists in understanding the dieback, Joseph Hulbert, postdoctoral fellow in WSU’s Department of Plant Pathology, launched the Forest Health Watch program to document healthy and unhealthy trees using the iNaturalist citizen-science platform.

Joseph Hulbert, WSU Postdoctoral Fellow, founded Forest Health Watch.

“These observations are really helpful for identifying environmental factors linked to dieback,” Hulbert said. “Another approach for learning to keep redcedar healthy is to explore its genetic diversity.”

That’s the premise behind a new project, the Open Redcedar Adaptation Network, which Hulbert is developing in partnership with local foundations and city park programs. The Network is organizing a series of research plantings in the Puget Sound area.

Redcedar plantings will help public school educators bring climate adaptation research into their lessons, and learn whether trees adapted to climate in Oregon are better suited for a drier, warmer environment. Educators and students can measure trees, compare growth between Oregon and Washington seed zones, and then share the data with classes throughout the region.

Redcedar planting
A community redcedar planting site in western Washington. Educators and scientists can learn how different redcedar varieties stand up to changing climate.

“Western redcedar is a critical component of the cultural legacy and industrial heritage of the Pacific Northwest, and the dieback of this keystone species is a tragedy,” Hulbert said. “More information is urgently needed, and the contributions of community scientists are our best hope for finding a solution quickly. Together, we can learn how to keep these trees healthy for our communities and future generations.”

Trees were planted earlier this winter in Seattle’s Discovery Park; additional plantings are in being considered elsewhere.

Volunteers can register for the March 19 Tacoma plantings here. Hulbert encourages anyone interested in becoming a Forest Health Watch observer to sign up at the Forest Health Project website.