Yellow cedar is dying. Can Southeast Alaska sawmills profit?

A dead stand of yellow cedar on West Chichagof-Yakobi Wilderness in Southeast Alaska. (Photo courtesy of Lauren Oakes)

Yellow cedar is a commercially valuable tree species for the timber industry. It grows from California all the way to Southeast Alaska, but there are fewer living trees growing across the range because of climate change.

A recent study explores the business potential of salvage logging, or harvesting trees that are already dead. It sounds eco-conscious, like something that would be cataloged beside reclaimed wood. But Brian Buma, an ecologist with the University of Colorado, thinks that’s a stretch.

“I have to say, I really hate that term because dead trees are just as important to the ecosystem as live trees,” Buma said.

Buma is not totally opposed to logging, but he is concerned about the number of ways humans are contributing to yellow cedar’s decline. For example, through climate change.

Normally, snow helps insulate the trees’ roots, but rain combined with cold snaps can freeze yellow cedar roots, causing them to die. In total, about 7 percent of the species has died across its range.

“On one hand you don’t want people cutting down live yellow cedar because it’s dying,” Buma said. “So, we want to conserve it where it’s still alive. But on the other hand, you don’t want to take away a valuable resource in the community.”

Like Buma, the U.S. Forest Service also wondered about this new inventory of climate change killed trees. Southeast Alaska’s timber industry is struggling, and there’s been a long debate about whether or not the federal agency is doing enough to help it survive.

Past studies indicate yellow cedar that’s been dead for decades can be just as good for making stuff as living trees. (The species is famous for being resistant to rot.) So together, ecologists and foresters set up a task for five sawmills on Prince of Wales and Kupreanof Island. They wanted to know if lumber from dead trees worked as well in practice as it seemed to on paper.

On of the five sawmills used in the experiment was Kupreanof Lumber & Design, run by Kevin Merry. The Forest Service handled the fees for harvesting the dead yellow cedar, and Merry cut the trees along the road in Kake himself. He says the trees were spread out so harvesting them was labor and time intensive, and some of the yellow cedar was too degraded to mill, but he was still able to find markets.

“At that time, I sent a little bit of it down to the guy in Florida making turkey calls,” Merry said. “Some more of it was used by some wood carvers. Some of it ended up being firewood.”

In the end, Merry’s costs were higher than his gross revenue. But of the five mills in the experiment, three of them actually did OK.

Brian Buma says the results were kind of a mixed bag. Still, it proved you can make money on a species of dying trees.

“It’s not like this is suddenly going to support a bunch of new jobs,” Buma said. “This is just sort of a way to protect the species while doing some damage — but not a ton of damage — to the ecosystem.”

And Buma thinks that might be the marketing key to creating a high value product. For instance, beetle-killed pine, found in Western parts of the United States, has gained in popularity. Why not climate change killed wood? If that’s the story of our time, some people might want to own a piece of that.

“I think it’s interesting. I got laughed at when I told some of the folks in Southeast,” Buma said. “They thought that was silly.”

Still, Buma says he would be a potential customer.

There is at least one small sawmill in the region that makes guitar tops from salvage trees. They’ve even used dead yellow cedar for that. But they currently don’t have plans to expand that part of their business.

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