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Citizen scientists can help study, halt die‑off of Pacific Northwest’s redcedars

Western redcedars are among the largest and most iconic trees in Pacific Northwest forests. Above, healthy firs stand near redcedars with dying tops. WSU scientists are seeking citizen help in understanding why more of these trees are dying back.

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.

Closeup of Joey Hulbert
Joey Hulbert

“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.

Citizen-aided discovery could ultimately help screen seed sources and tree genotypes to find varieties that can stand up to a hotter, drier climate. Hulbert also envisions future regional forest health projects with other species such as western hemlock or bigleaf maple, but his larger goal is a trained network of community scientists who are reliable observers of tree health.

Forest Health Watch was created as part of Hulbert’s postdoctoral fellowship through the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture’s Educational Workforce Development program. Additional partner organizations include the Washington State Department of Natural Resources, U.S. Forest Service, WSU and Oregon State University Extension, the Oregon Department of Forestry, and several other non-profits, tribes and municipalities. Additional partner organizations are welcomed to become involved and help guide the program.

“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.”

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