At American Forests, we spend a lot of time talking about, thinking about and working to protect whitebark pine, a keystone species in the high-elevation West, as it struggles with disease and infestation, compounded by rising average temperatures.

Maybe that’s why the story of another species of white pine facing its own set of struggles really jumped out at me when it appeared in The New York Times last week.

The Yakushima white pine is found only on two small islands in Japan: Tanegashima and Yaukushima. The pines have been suffering for some time from undetermined causes, but according to The New York Times, one theory is now gaining traction. Environmental engineer Osamu Nagafuchi has long believed that air pollution from China is affecting the trees on Yakushima, and his theory is beginning to gain supporters. While a decline in the rate of death in recent years despite China’s increasing emissions could indicate a flaw in Nagafuchi’s theory, he believes that the pollution quickly killed off weaker trees, and this newer wave of dieback is a sign that levels have increased enough to affect healthier trees as well.

Jōmon Sugi
The Jōmon Sugi on Yaukushima. Credit: Matthew Bednarik

The forests of Yakushima carry immense importance both ecologically and culturally. From the ecological perspective, the forests are old growth and, therefore, home to older trees that provide unique and important ecosystem functions. As American Forests Science Advisory Board member Dr. Jerry Franklin, writing with David B. Lindenmayer and William F. Laurance, stated in their recently published paper Global Decline in Large Old Trees, “Younger and smaller trees cannot provide most of the distinctive ecological roles played by large old trees.”

From a cultural perspective, the forests of Yakushima are home not just to the endemic pine, but also to the “Yauksugi,” cedars that live more than 1,000 years longer than the 500-year lifespan of a typical Japanese cedar and earned the island a place of the list of UNESCO world heritage sites. The oldest among them is the famous Jōmon Sugi, commonly estimated to be 2,600 years old — though some estimates place it as much, much older. Filmmaker Miyazaki Hayao, best known in the U.S. for Spirited Away and Ponyo, was inspired by Yakushima when he created the film Princess Mononoke, in which he brought to life the forest spirits and magical atmosphere that many feel old-growth forests. Given the area’s importance, it would be concerning indeed if the loss of healthy pines was but the canary in a coal mine.

Whether Nagafuchi’s theory turns out to be correct or not, it’s clear that old-growth forests around the world are suffering for a number of reasons. Dr. Franklin writes that “The loss of large old trees is a recognized concern in many ecosystems worldwide. For example, populations of large old trees are plummeting in intensively grazed landscapes in California, Costa Rica and Spain, where such trees are predicted to disappear within 90 to 180 years.” That’s why American Forests works to protect old growth. Joined by many supporters like you, we told U.S. senators to oppose legislation threatening old growth in Tongass National Forest. Show your support for old-growth forests by signing on or giving today.