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The Redlined Western Red Cedar Study Project

November 18, 2021 - 1:06 pm

Cascadia Climate Action is hosting aClimate Science on Tap series event this evening at 7 pm at the Peddler Brewing Company.  The topic is’ Urban Forests: Climate Change Solution or Casualty?’ 

The event features three speakers – one of whom is Dr. Joey Hulbert Program Director, of Washington State University’s  Forest Health Watch.  He heads up a community science centered project to understand where our cities’ iconic Western Red Cedar  are failing to thrive.  A hypothesis is that they are not doing so well in warmer urban areas.  Areas in the city characterized by warmer average temperatures are often neighborhoods that have been historically redlined. 

Listen to Dr. Hulbert’s description of the this study and how you can get involved.

Producer: Yuko Kodama

Photo :  Cascadia Climate Action

91.3 kbcs, music and ideas listener supported radio from Bellevue College. I’m Yuko Kodama Cascadia Climate Action is hosting an event from the Climate Science On Tap series. The topic is Urban Forests: Climate Change Solution or Casualty. The event features three speakers, one of whom is Dr. Joey Hulbert, Program Director of Washington State University’s Forest Health Watch. I read about your studies in an article, and it’s the Seattle Redlined Red Cedar Study. Tell me what that is about.

As part of the fellowship I have, we launched a program called the forest health watch. The premise of that program is to conduct research projects with communities. We try and co-design projects. At the very beginning of establishing this program, we were trying to figure out what our first project should be. And we asked a lot of our partners and collaborators what their biggest concern is with trees… and red cedar, and the die back of red cedar quickly became clear that that is the big pressing issue that our region is facing. A lot of people were concerned and there was growing pools of evidence that this is an issue and that the trees are in worse shape than they have been in the past. So we decided to do a community science project around the health of red cedar, following the input of a lot of these collaborators and partners. And so that has brought us a long way. So we started looking at the dieback of red cedar and realized, wow, this is really a regional issue. It’s happening from California to British Columbia, if not all the way up to Alaska, there’s issues where the tops of red cedar are dying, and the trees every year are looking worse and worse. And we’re starting to see more trees actually dying throughout this pretty big range. And so there’s this general consensus among a lot of our partners and the scientists we work with that this is linked to the longer and hotter droughts that our region has been experiencing, particularly thinking back to 2015, when our region experienced a really bad drought. A kind of unprecedented drought in so since then, we’ve been seeing a lot of red cedar dying. And that’s been the general consensus.

We had this hypothesis that if we know that redlined areas of Seattle, are hotter, then we suspect that trees are going to be less healthy in those areas. We’re not approaching this because we’re really concerned about the trees. We’re more concerned about the communities. And we’re wondering if the tree health in these communities can be a symbol for for the inequities in these communities, or a symbol for the greater need for support and stewardship and more care for the urban forests. If trees are actually less healthy in these redlined areas, what does that mean?

What’s kind of unique about this project is it’s a community science effort. We want to create shared learning as much as we want to advance knowledge. So we want to do this with communities, rather than just going and do the research ourselves. Because we want it to be a learning experience, and we want we want to foster that really shared connection with, the issue and the information. So so we’re approaching this as here’s all these trees, summer and redlined areas and summer and non redlined areas. Let’s compare the healthof these trees in these different communities.

Could you describe what it looks like?

Yeah, Western cedar is a really iconic tree of the Pacific Northwest. And it is in our neighborhoods and it grows really well in the northwest, at least it has. It’s really characterized by, we call them scales, the needles are really flat and appear in these flat sprays. You wouldn’t call them a needle, and they’re not like a pine needle and they’re not like a needle you would see on a Douglas fir branch. Perhaps the most characteristic part of them is the bark, the bark is very stringy.

There’s a reason it’s considered the tree of life because there’s so many gifts that it provides and the bark and the cedar roots are used for weaving baskets and making textiles and other traditional pieces that require string, so you can you can kind of shred the bark into fine strings. One cool thing when you look at a red cedar is that the branches all kind of point upward. So they’re they’re almost like J’s As they come off the tree, the very tips they point upward. So you might be looking at a tree out your window, and if you can see that the tips are all pointing up, that might be a good indicator that it could be a red cedar.

Generally when we ask people to share observations, we asked for three to four pictures. One, the whole tree where we can see those branch tips pointing up, two, the bark. Because the bark is pretty distinctive. It has that it’s really dark red, it turns kind of gray when it gets older. Instead of big plates or puzzle pieces, you’ll see strips . and it kind of looks fuzzy or kind of like cloth, I’d suppose. The other two pictures we ask for as one, if you can see the cones, sometimes they hold on to their cons for a really long time. And the cones look like little eggs, and they’re pointing towards the sky. So they’re always upright. And they’re in the shape of eggs when they’re closed. But when they open, they actually look like little flower buds or rose buds. But then my favorite thing to tell people about what to look for when you’re trying to determine if this is actually a red cedar -So if you turn the leaves over, and you look on the very underside of the newest foliage, then you’ll see this white bloom. And that bloom is in the shape of butterflies. And so it’s kind of a white powder, in the shape of really small butterflies on the underside of the scales are the needles of the tree. And the other thing I would say about red cedar, is that it’s probably our longest living tree in the northwest, which is another reason, It’s really sad to think about how there’s so many unhealthy trees in the region now. So our longest living tree is the one that’s in the most trouble.

If I see a cedar, how do I know if it’s not healthy? What does that look like?

There’s a couple different things we’re seeing. So around Seattle, kind of the most alarming thing that you might see as the top will be dead. So the main stem, the very top will be dead, but maybe you know, some of the tree is still alive, maybe a third of the tree is only dead. But maybe next year, that’ll be two thirds of the tree, we don’t have a good understanding of how quickly this happens. But sometimes you’ll see that the top is dead, and it will not have any fine branches left. So that means you won’t see any very small branches, you only see the big branch stumps. Another factor you might see that indicates the tree is unhealthy is that you’ll be able to see through the tree more than you should. The tree has dropped some of its foliage, and now it looks very thin.

So is this how citizen science works? How does someone that’s involved in your project? who’s living in a neighborhood get involved? And what are they to be watching for it and documenting?

Yeah, we would love to have more observations of where red cedar are and how healthy they are. And it’s okay if you don’t answer everything as as correctly. It’s kind of a learning process. And we’re happy to work with you as you make some of these observations. But the way that people can get involved in our this research project to understand what’s going on with western red cedar and this project to raise awareness about the issue is by creating a login on inaturalist and then you’re enjoying the red cedar die back map project. And then when you share a picture using inaturalist, either on your computer or on your phone. You tag the project, you say this is part of the red cedar dieback map project. When you tag the project, that’s when we ask you, is this tree healthy or unhealthy? And then what did you see? And there’s just drop down answers. So you can say, oh, it’s browning, or the top is dead? Then it also asks, Did you see anything else that might explain why that tree is unhealthy? There’s just a couple of questions that we ask folks to answer when they’re sharing pictures of red cedar trees that they come across. And so that’s how we’re getting a good understanding of where Red Cedar are healthy, where they might be vulnerable. Are there certain areas that are worse than others? Those kind of questions are coming through this information that a lot of people are sharing.

With that information, with those GPS points that are associated with the pictures. We’ll be able to do a lot more analysis to determine which environmental factors are important for predicting if that tree is healthy or unhealthy. So for example, we’ll be able to look at the historical temperature in that area, we’ll be able to look at the amount of rainfall it’s got in the past year or on average over the past 30 years. And we’ll try and identify which one of those parameters really is the best at explaining whether that tree is healthy or not. We’ll also look at things like the type of soil and we’ll be able to look at where is it on the landscape. So for example, our trees that are near water, the trees that are more vulnerable or are trees that are up on a slope more vulnerable. By giving a lot of participation and having a lot of observations will be able to answer these kinds of questions more quickly and with more confidence that will enable us to know where to plant red cedar in the future, where to protect red cedar now, where not to plant red cedar in the future…, really just give us a better understanding of the factors we need to know so that we can keep red cedar on the landscape for future generations.

So you’ve been working on this project for how many years?

We launched the inaturalist project in October 2020. So just over a year,

What have you taken away within the past year?

You know, I’m really privileged to get to work and explore and learn on these stolen ancestral lands of the Coast Salish peoples in general, but specifically the traditional homelands of PuyallupTribe of Indians. And it’s been a great opportunity for me to grow working on red cedar. If we think about how we exhale carbon dioxide and how trees absorb carbon dioxide, then you can think about the people that have exhaled carbon dioxide around these red cedars. And think about how that red cedar is connected to the ancestors in the region. And to me, that has been one of the coolest things. I’ve realized over the past year working with red cedar. If we think about the big picture of what we’re trying to accomplish with this community science effort, we know red cedar is really important. It’s really important because of its ancestral legacy in the northwest. So we know red cedar is really important because the legacy and the role it’s played, helping indigenous peoples in the Northwest. We also know it’s really important because it has a really enormous footprint on the landscape. For example, in Seattle alone, we know there’s at least 2000 red cedar trees around the city. 2000 trees are providing really enormous services to the region like reducing the effect of heat islands and stabilizing the soils on our streams that are salmon bearing, reducing temperature and heat. Maintaining temperature for the streams for salmon is another example of what they’re doing. And they’re doing things we don’t think about in our cities like reducing noise, improving our mental health, supporting birds and other wildlife. Red Cedar is also really important when we think about the industrial heritage of the Northwest and how Seattle and Issaquah and probably Everett and Tacoma for sure, are all really important timber industries in the timber towns in Tacoma, at one point had nine Mills along its waterfront. just as an example of how timber industry was such an important part of the industrial heritage in the northwest and red cedars always been an enormous part of that. And it’s really important that we try and keep it for future generations, when we think about how connected it is to the northwest.

Could you talk a little bit about the importance of urban forests

We’re quickly learning how important urban forests are and you know, King County did an incredible thing when they mapped the temperature, the surface level across the county and they drove around in a hot summer day and measured temperature three different times of the day, all over the county. And that was really illuminating, because it’s very clear that the hottest areas were the areas without trees.

It’s a constant struggle. How do we develop? how do we, you know, keep growing? We’re expecting millions more people to move in King County in the next handful of years or next couple of decades. And how do we accommodate those people without compromising, trees. So we’re realizing how important these trees are. But we’re struggling to keep them healthy and protect them and grow them. So we’re constantly learning. How do we do that? How do we balance this?

We know trees are generally important for our communities just simply because they provide shade. But there’s also a lot of other services that they’re providing. Some of it is stormwater mitigation. We just had enormous amounts of rainfall in the past few days in Seattle. In Bellingham, Schools were closed for two days, because all the flooding and the trees are really helping regulate that they keep the soil in place, they help filter that water. They’re also there to help purify and clean the water once the water runs into these drainage ponds and things like that, before it runs into the Puget Sound, you can imagine how much chemicals and other things are out on our streets that are just washing in to the Puget Sound when we have those events. And so we really need kind of these collective heroes, these natural Heroes Helping us reduce our impacts on our natural systems.

Urban forests are also really important in terms of capturing carbon. There’s some incredible people at University of Washington that have done some neat work about mental health, the role of nature and just having, you know, some access to nature and your community can be really helpful for your mental health. And so there’s a lot of efforts to increase access to nature.

Clearly, there’s some concerns around that. There’s a lot of – how do you green areas without gentrifying them? How do you green areas without raising property values? That’s a balance that we’re clearly struggling with. Generally, we know urban forests are really important and the shade they provide is a clear example that when we think about extreme heat event we had in the Puget Sound recently, that was really well demonstrated by the surface temperature data that the county collected. It shows that where trees are, are cooler than where trees are not. And so we know that urban forests are really important for that. The benefits of these urban forests are not equitably distributed. This for a lot of reasons. Redlining is a pretty good example where, you know, certain communities based on racial demographics, were not favored by banks and could not get home loans and cannot build the equity, as much as other people in other neighborhoods. It’s clearly documented that this is primarily based on race and demographics in these communities. And it’s really sad that this has been linked to these hotter temperatures and these lack of forests.

It’s not just about whether the homeowners, or the folks living there could afford to maintain these trees or not. It’s when you think about the services that the city provides, did they provide those same services to street trees in those neighborhoods? Have they planted as many trees in those neighborhoods? Did those lots have planting strips as part of those in the lots that you would purchase? Those kinds of questions? There’s a lot of like systemic stuff in the history of the Northwest that have led to these areas having less trees and being hotter now. How do we cultivate and grow our urban forests to continue providing services and reducing the effects of heat, you know, helping communities in the face of climate change? But how do we do this equitably? And how do we counter the historical legacy and the inequities that these communities have had?

That was Dr. Joey Hulbert of Washington State University’s forest health watch? He’ll be speaking alongside two other panelists on urban forests at the Peddler Brewing Company tonight at 7pm. For more kbcs stories and to support our work with a donation you can visit