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Obituary: Scientist John Russell was top expert on yellow, western red cedars

John Russell, a B.C. forester and the world’s leading expert on the western red and yellow cedars, has died. He was 63.
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John Russell, the world's leading expert on the western red and yellow cedars, has died. He was 63.

John Russell, a B.C. forester and the world’s leading expert on the western red and yellow cedars, has died. He was 63.

Russell was the principal research scientist examining growth, genetics and survivability of the western red cedar and yellow cedar for the B.C. Ministry of Forests. He co-authored more than 40 papers in scientific journals and organized an international symposium in Victoria on the two species in 2010.

Russell, who lived in Maple Bay, died Dec. 20. He had kidney cancer.

Originally from Brantford, Ont., Russell obtained his bachelor of science degree in forestry from the University of Toronto. He completed a master’s degree at the University California Berkeley and joined the Forests Ministry research centre at Lake Cowichan in 1985. While with the ministry, he completed his PhD at the University of British Columbia.

Barb Hawkins, a professor in the Centre for Forest Biology at the University of Victoria, said Russell’s work was part of a provincewide effort begun in the 1950s to improve the forest health of various tree species. Russell’s work on the two cedar species took him all over B.C., she said.

“He would travel the province and select superior genotypes from various localities. It was an enormous amount of travelling and sampling,” Hawkins said.

“He would take cuttings or seeds and then plant the progeny back in test plots in various environments to see which genotype grew best in which environment.”

She said the two cedars don’t produce enormous quantities of lumber but are valuable for specialty use.

Wood from the western red cedar is prized for its durability in outdoor structures such as patios and decks. In Japan, the yellow cedar is sought for its colour in traditional-style furnishings.

Hawkins said Russell’s work was always about more than commercial forest applications. He wanted to know all about the physiology, genetics and underlying biology of trees. He worked frequently with university forest scientists, most notably at the University of British Columbia.

“He really tapped into the modern biological methods through his university collaborations, mostly at UBC,” Hawkins said. “He was fascinated by the science.”

Hawkins called Russell a friend and good colleague, always generous with his knowledge and ideas and forever supportive, especially with students.

“John was a true scientist,” she said. “He will be greatly missed.”

Alvin Yanchuk, once the head of genetics research at the Forests Ministry, said when Russell first started work on the cedars over 25 years ago, many believed the trees carried little genetic variation.

But Yanchuk said Russell’s harvesting, cloning and the planting and monitoring proved them wrong. His plantations are now the seed orchards used to replenish forests in B.C.

“Basically he started something out of nothing,” he said.

Russell is survived by his wife, Valerie, and three grown children, Heather, Andrew and Christopher. A celebration of his life is being planned, possibly for the spring.

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