CSI: Cedar Science Investigators

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To unlock the secrets of B.C.’s past, Lori Daniels and her lab look deep inside some of the province’s longest living inhabitants – old growth trees.

“We call ourselves CSI detectives … the Cedar Science Investigators,” said Daniels, a professor in the Faculty of Forestry who studies tree rings.

Tree rings can tell you a lot if you know what to look for. The rings reveal a tree’s age, how fast it grew, when it died, what the forest looked like, whether it survived a fire or pest outbreak, and past climates. Using tree rings, Daniels has reconstructed fire and insect outbreaks that go back hundreds of years.

Culturally modified trees

This summer, Daniels and student Ashley Dobko are piecing together a different history. They are working with First Nations to describe how past generations interacted with the forest, uncovering the stories of culturally modified trees in the hope that they may be preserved.

“If we can identify these trees before they are cut down, we can get them saved.” -Lori Daniels
Historically, indigenous people stripped cedar bark from standing trees and used the material in fishing nets, baskets, and clothing. Bark was removed in the spring and taken out in big rectangles, damaging the tree and leaving a scar in the rings.

“For B.C. coastal First Nations, cedar is the ‘tree of life’,” said Daniels. “From the tree rings, we can learn how old the tree is, when it was stripped and how often it happened.”

Emerging Aboriginal Scholars Camp

For their summer project, Daniels and Dobko have enlisted the help of four Aboriginal high school students who are interning through the Emerging Aboriginal Scholars Camp. Students in the five-week program, run by the Pacific Institute for the Mathematical Sciences (PIMS) and the First Nations House of Learning, attend English and math courses and get experience working in university research settings.

The interns are working on two samples donated from Musqueam. These samples are giant disks that have been cut off the stumps of culturally modified trees.

“They are doing the kind of things I was doing my first year working in the lab,” said Dobko, who is entering her final year of the Natural Resource Conservation program and teaching the tree ring science to the interns. “They are preparing and polishing the samples so they can look at the ring patterns, shapes and anomalies using microscopes and photography.”

After just one week of the program, the interns can list off all sorts of facts about cedar trees and the ring science. “It’s just interesting to know the history of a cedar tree,” said Angeline Day, one of the four interns.

Dobko hopes the exposure to the field of forestry and to the university benefit the students.

“I want them to take away from this experience that there are a lot of different avenues in Forestry. It’s not just about cutting down trees, we do a lot of science,” she said. “I want them to know that university is an awesome option – it’s very achievable.”

Working in Haida Gwaii and Musqueam

The summer research is an extension of a project that began last year with Haida and Musqueam communities. Dobko received an NSERC Aboriginal Ambassadors Award to work with Daniels to set up two outreach programs – one with Musqueam youth aged 8 to 12 and another with high school students from Haida Gwaii.

Both Musqueam and Haida communities knew of culturally modified trees on their land but wanted to learn more about the history of the forest. The trees had been cut down or blown over so the communities sliced disks from the remaining stumps and donated them to the project.

When the high school students did the tree ring work on the culturally modified tree from Haida Gwaii, they found that it dated back to 1541, making it almost 500 years old.

“We found that it had four, potentially five, modifications over that 500-year period,” said Daniels. “We believe most of the cultural modifications happened in the 1700s and 1800s but we want to pinpoint the exact dates.”

The Haida Gwaii tree was cut down in 2007. The Haida had spoken out against logging that site but plans went ahead regardless.

“If we can identify these trees before they are cut down, we can get them saved. They are historically and culturally valuable and trees modified before 1846 are protected by the provincial Heritage Conservation Act,” said Daniels.

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