- Access to ancient cedars for cultural purposes is essential for the Indigenous peoples of Southeast Alaska, both for their heritage and the resilience of their community.
- Carving and weaving traditions call for straight-grained, slow-growing red and yellow cedars 450+ years old with few branches or flaws. These rare forest giants are called “monumental trees,” and many are contained within the Tongass National Forest.
- Despite its importance, Tongass continues to be threatened by forest management pressures, climate change and political shifts: over a million hectares of forest have been cleared since it was declared a forest. national.
- This article is a comment. The opinions expressed are those of the author, not necessarily of Mongabay.
Despite heavy duty rain gear and Xtratuf boots, I was soaked through. But you can’t bank on a sunny day in the world’s largest temperate rainforest – the Tongass National Forest – even in Kée.X‘ Kwáan (Kake), considered the sunniest town in Southeast Alaska. I plodded along, grateful for the old cedar and spruce canopy above, doing its best to shield us from the downpour. Five young Alaskan Natives with a box of 6-inch cedar seedlings (“stecklings”) follow restlessly, weaving their way through the berry bushes in an attempt to lead the group.
The youths are crew members of an Indigenous stewardship and conservation program called Alaskan Youth Stewards (AYS); this is my third summer as a team leader. Unlike me, raised in the hot, humid summers of Georgia, the crew members grew up in Kake and thrive in the cool, humid conditions of the forest. Ethan, who took the lead, points up a giant cedar snag with the circumference of a poker table. “See!” A scar the width of two hands runs up the trunk of the cedar for about 30 yards, tapering to a point. The youths gaze in collective silence at the culturally modified tree – a cedar whose bark has been harvested for cultural purposes native to Alaska. It may have been one of their ancestors who harvested this strip of cedar bark hundreds of years ago.
Southeast Alaska, known for its jagged snow-capped peaks, salmon-filled waters, and ancient forests, is the original homeland of the Haida, Tsimshian, and Tlingit peoples. For approximately 10,000 years, Alaskan Native tribes have stewarded the waters and lands of what is now the Tongass National Forest, sustainably using forest and ocean resources for their livelihoods, cultural traditions and their art. Cedars and bark, used to create utilitarian and cultural objects including totem poles, canoes, paddles, woven hats and baskets, and badges, are particularly important forest resources. Carving and weaving traditions call for straight-grained, slow-growing red and yellow cedars 450+ years old with few branches or flaws. These rare forest giants are called “monumental trees”.
The use of cedar for cultural purposes is important to Southeast Alaska Natives, both for their heritage and the resilience of their community. Recent research highlights the importance of carving and weaving to Indigenous peoples in Alaska, including the provision of essential cultural ecosystem services – benefits provided by nature that have cultural or spiritual significance. The research emphasizes the undeniable association between cedar carving/weaving and identity, physical and mental health, spirituality, and connection to nature for Alaska Natives. Additionally, the Tongass provides essential ecosystem services, including global climate mitigation: it is America’s largest carbon sink, absorbing and storing 44% of all carbon sequestered by national forests in the United States. .
Despite its biocultural and environmental importance, Tongass continues to be threatened by pressures from forest management, climate change and political shifts. Federal and public advocacy is essential to safeguard cultural forest resources to support native Alaskan ways of life.
Since the designation of 16.7 million acres of Southeast Alaska as the Tongass National Forest in 1907, logging industries have clearcut more than one million acres of forest, approximately the California state size! This extraction of forest resources resulted in the removal of approximately half of the old trees in the area. Red cedar, being a high value export, is more heavily targeted by domestic and international lumber markets. In addition, current United States Forest Service management practices prioritize young-growth, even-aged forests, a growth strategy that conflicts with the slow-growth requirements of monumental trees.
In addition to logging pressures, the health and prevalence of yellow cedar are highly threatened by climate change. Due to rising global temperatures, the essential winter snowpack to insulate the yellow cedar’s shallow roots has become insufficient, causing roots to freeze and resulting in the mass death of yellow cedar. In 2007, scientists reported more than 70% mature yellow cedars of the Tongass National Forest as dead.
Finally, since the governance of the Tongass National Forest rests in the hands of the United States federal government, it is subject to political drama and reversal. In October 2019, former U.S. President Trump appealed the 2001 No Road Rule, an agreement between native tribes in Southeast Alaska and Congress protecting large swaths of the Tongass rainforest from road development and natural resource extraction. Even though President Biden reinstated roadless rule in November 2021, events prove that long-term forest conservation is sensitive to swings in federal government cycles.
Pressures from logging, climate change and political instability are all significant threats to the peoples and environments of Tonga. National and international advocacy is needed for the protection of Alaska’s native culture and global climate resilience. There are a number of actions people can take to support the preservation of Tongas and Alaska Native culture.
First, the public must advocate for support of the Southeast Alaska Sustainability Strategy, a collaborative effort between U.S. Department of Agriculture agencies and Alaskan Native Tribes to “help sustain a diversified economy, improve the resilience of communities and conserve natural resources”. You can help by contacting your state’s senators and representatives to advocate for the agency’s efforts to conserve Southeast Alaska’s natural resources and native cultures and ways of life.
Second, you can help local efforts supporting Native Alaskan cultural revival and biocultural conservation: Southeast community members and collaborations such as the Southeast Sustainable Partnership work to protect Monumental Trees, to perpetuate Alaska’s native culture and increase access to cedar forest products for future generations. You can expand these efforts by donating to support Alaskan Native Stewardship, forest regeneration projects, and youth empowerment programs, including Alaskan Youth Stewards, Keex Kwaan Community Forest Partnership, and the Hoonah Native Forest Partnership.
Finally, we all have a responsibility to be conscious consumers. Before buying wood or forest products, research the origins of wood and be aware of the impact that consumer purchases can have on the culture and well-being of the people who live there.
Audrey Clavijo worked and lived in Kake, Alaska for three summers as the Coordinator and Team Leader of Kake AYS. She is currently a master’s student at Colorado State University in the Conservation Leadership program.
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