British Columbia

B.C.'s provincial tree threatened by climate change, expert says

Tree expert David Tracey says B.C.'s iconic Western red cedar could be threatened in the near future by climate change.

West coasters have used it for centuries, but now the Western red cedar could face new challenges

David Tracey says climate change could negatively affect B.C.'s provincial tree, the Western red cedar. (CBC)

If you've ever walked down Richards Street in Downtown Vancouver, between Helmcken and Nelson, you've probably noticed the sidewalk split and curve to accommodate a large Western red cedar growing in the middle of the walkway. 

David Tracey, executive director of the Tree City Canada Association, says climate change is now beginning to negatively affect the iconic B.C. red cedars, which can live up to a thousand years.

"The hotter, drier summers we're getting, they're just not able to take it," Tracey said.

First adopted as the provincial tree in 1988, Tracey said the Western red cedar is one of the most important types of trees in Canadian history.

'It's the original Gortex'

"This is the native [to B.C.] tree to know if you only know one native tree," said Tracey speaking on North by Northwest.

"This is the cornerstone tree of [Western] First Nation culture."

Tracey said the Western red cedar's natural abundance of resin makes the wood remarkably light, strong and malleable.

He said its prevalence throughout Western North America allowed timber-reliant First Nations to build enduring and impressive tools and lodgings.

In this 2002 photo, members of Canada's Nisga'a First Nation erect a totem pole made from a 500-year-old Western red cedar. (Heinz-Peter Bader/Reuters)

The tree was integral to a robust infrastructure that caused Indigenous coastal culture to flourish.

"You can build beams with it ... You can make your canoe with it ... It does a really good job of repelling rain, and folks knew that so they made their clothing out of the bark," Tracey said.

"Some tree bark is quite rough and repels the skin, but this bark is almost inviting you to come in and make contact with it ... It's the original Gortex."

Tree of life

The Western red cedar also goes by the name giant arborvitae, meaning tree of life.

While many First Nations called it the tree of life because of its bountiful nature, Tracey said European colonists first gave it the moniker after encountering its cousin, Eastern white cedar.

"That was the tree that Jacques Cartier and his crew used to survive scurvy by ingesting the needles," said Tracey. 

The 700-year-old hollow tree in Stanley Park, a Western red cedar, was one of Vancouver’s first tourist attractions.

The tree also has a natural longevity. 

Tracey said it can grow for a millennium if left alone, and if felled by wind it will remain on the verdant B.C. rainforest floor for centuries because of its fungicidal resin. 

Today, the redcedar serves as a significant resource to British Columbia's forestry industry, and Tracey said recent studies conducted on Vancouver Island suggest the economic staple is under threat of endangerment.

"They've lived for thousands of years in this region and thrived here and defined what this region is, and now some of them seem to be dying out."

With files from North by Northwest