Researchers collaborate with First Nations to help understand and conserve at-risk large cultural cedar trees

Simon Fraser University

A collaborative research project between the five First Nations of the Nanwakolas Council of B.C. and Simon Fraser University is contributing to conservation efforts of the iconic western redcedar tree.

New research in the Journal of Ethnobiology highlights concerns about the long-term sustainability of this culturally significant resource. Researchers found that western redcedar trees suitable for traditional carving are generally rare. Some important growth forms, such as large, spectacular trees appropriate for carving community canoes, are nearly extirpated from these First Nations’ traditional territories, a region that includes parts of north Vancouver Island and the mainland coast of British Columbia.

Indigenous people in this region use large cultural cedar (wilkw / k ̓ wa’x̱ tłu) extensively for cultural practices such as carving dugout canoes, totem poles and traditional buildings, which is why it’s often described as, “the tree of life.”

“Cedar is what connects us all up and down the coast of British Columbia,” says Dallas Smith, president of the Nanwakolas Council. “There are different language groups, but we all have cultural cedar ceremonies that start our traditional gatherings.”

Jordan Benner, adjunct professor in SFU’s School of Resource and Environmental Management (REM) and a research advisor with the Nanwakolas Council, led the study as part of his doctoral thesis at SFU. Benner, together with REM professor emeritus Ken Lertzman and SFU PhD student Julie Nielsen, collaborated with the First Nation communities. With guidance from community leadership, this interdisciplinary team carried out interviews with traditional wood carvers and conducted extensive fieldwork with stewardship workers.

The research is contributing to the development of new forest stewardship policies focused on cedar conservation, which are being implemented through First Nation laws and subsequent agreements with forestry companies.

“It’s pretty clear that more than a century of industrial logging has dramatically reduced the abundance of redcedar suitable for these types of practices. What we see today no longer reflects past baseline conditions,” says Benner. “Seeing biological systems through a cultural lens is critical for First Nations who are striving to maintain traditional connections across generations, and it is an important piece of the sustainability puzzle.”

Adds Lertzman, “This research is motivated by the needs and desires of the communities and carried out collaboratively. Combining cultural knowledge with ecological science is a powerful approach for understanding our impacts on the landscape and for improving forest management practices.”

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