The Alaska yellow cedar edged one step closer to being listed as a threatened or endangered species after the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced that the tree may warrant such protection because of the ravages of climate change.
The move was applauded by environmentalists while a timber industry trade group called it "pretty silly."
If the conifer is listed, it would become the first tree in Alaska to be protected under the federal Engangered Species Act. The cedar is found from southeast Alaska down to Northern California.
"It's a symbol of what our actions are doing to the climate," said Rebecca Noblin, the Center for Biological Diversity's Alaska director. "The biggest threat is climate change. They're also logged in the Tongass National Forest."
Noblin said the tree has special adaptations that allow it to live in "places that a lot of other trees can't live." In winter, its shallow root system needs snow for insulation from the cold. In years with little snowfall -- including 2014 -- the roots are in danger of freezing.
The center was one of four groups that petitioned the federal government to add the tree to the endangered species list. According to the organizations, the warming climate is causing suitable habitat for the Alaska yellow cedar to disappear.
"More than 600,000 acres of dead yellow cedar forests are already readily visible from the air," the group said in a written statement. "If greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise at their current rates, the tree will be driven to extinction."
But Owen Graham, executive director of the Alaska Forest Assn., disputed the conservation groups' characterization of the tree's health. His organization represents the timber industry, and he said Friday that "the whole idea of listing the yellow cedar as an endangered species is pretty silly. It's certainly not endangered."
Graham said the groups' petition to have the tree added to the endangered species list is "a way to lock up federal land. Only 2% to 4% of the forest is scheduled for development. These groups aren't satisfied to have 96% of the forest locked up. They want it all."
The Center for Biological Diversity, the Boat Company, the Greater Southeast Alaska Conservation Community and Greenpeace filed their petition for protection on June 24, 2014.
The Fish and Wildlife Service published its finding that protection may be warranted in the Federal Register on Friday. The agency has until June 24 to decide whether the tree warrants such protection.
If it says no, the decision will be final. If the agency does propose listing the Alaska yellow cedar, a public comment period will begin, and the agency will have one year to finalize its decision. At that point, protections would begin.
"Reducing greenhouse gas emissions, while at the same time eliminating any live-tree harvest by logging," the groups said, "is the yellow cedar's best hope for survival."