by Seth Truscott
Washington State University scientists seek help from residents of the Pacific Northwest in tracing the worrying die-off of an iconic forest tree, the western redcedar.
A distinctive, useful, and beautiful giant, the western redcedar has historically provided Native American tribes with much of the materials for practical objects and culture. 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 are 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.
Joseph Hulbert, postdoctoral fellow in WSU’s Department of Plant Pathology, founded the Forest Health Watch program to enlist citizen scientists in understanding and preventing dieback.
Researchers believe the problem is spurred by longer, hotter droughts in the region. But it’s unclear if precipitation, temperature, consecutive dry days, or other environmental factors are the main factor.
Launched in 2020, Forest Health Watch seeks answers. Citizens help by logging and photographing sites where trees are healthy, dead or dying back. People can also identify sites and conditions where trees may be vulnerable, and watch for signs of disease or pests.
“Anyone can be a community scientist,” Hulbert said. “All you really need is a camera for this project.”
Hulbert launched the Western Redcedar Dieback Map on the iNaturalist citizen science website to allow citizens to easily log their sightings.
“Once we have a strong understanding of the areas where trees are vulnerable, we can begin to explore options for keeping trees healthy in those areas,” he said.