Yellow-cedar is a long-lived conifer of the North Pacific Coastal Temperate Rainforest region that is thought to be undergoing a continued natural range expansion in southeast Alaska. Yellow-cedar is locally rare in northern and eastern portions of the Alexander Archipelago, and the fairly homogenous climate and forest conditions across the region suggest that yellow-cedar's rarity could be due to its local migrational history rather than constraints on its growth. Yellow-cedar trees in northern range edge locations appear to be growing fast, with few dead trees; additionally, yellow-cedar tend to be co- and subdominant to older mountain and western hemlock trees, indicating recent establishment.
To explore yellow-cedar migration in the region, and determine if the range is expanding into suitable habitat, I located 11 leading edge yellow-cedar populations near Juneau, Alaska. I used the geographic extent of these populations to determine the landscape, climate, and disturbance factors associated with range edge population establishment, and used those factors to model suitable habitat for the species. Based on habitat modeling, yellow-cedar is currently only occupying 0.8 percent of its potential landscape niche in the Juneau study area. Tree ages indicate that populations are relatively young for the species, indicating recent migration, and that most established during the recent colder and snowier Little Ice Age climate period(1100-1850).
To determine if yellow-cedar is continuing to colonize unoccupied, but suitable habitat in the region, I located 29 plots at the edges of yellow-cedar stands to measure regeneration and expansion into existing forest communities. Despite abundant suitable habitat, yellow-cedar stand expansion appears stagnant in recent decades. Seedlings are only dispersing 4.65 m beyond stand boundaries, on average, and few seedlings are reaching mature heights both inside and outside of existing yellow-cedar stands. Mature, 100-200-year-old trees are often observed abruptly at stand boundaries, indicating a lack of recent expansion. When observed, seedlings are most common in high light understory plant communities and moderately wet portions of the soil drainage gradient, consistent with the species autecology in the region.
Despite an overall lack of regeneration via seed, yellow-cedar is reproducing via asexual layering in high densities across stands. Layering may be one strategy this species employs to slowly infill habitat and/or persist on the landscape until conditions are more favorable for sexual reproduction. This study leads to a picture of yellow-cedar migration as punctuated, and therefore relatively slow, in the region. Yellow-cedar's migration history and currently limited spread at the northeastern range edge should be considered when planning for the conservation and management of this high value tree under future climate scenarios.