NOAA 99-R507a
Contact: Jana Goldman


A planting project by the Commerce Department's National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Sea Grant program will restore the black ash tree along the St. Lawrence river valley, providing material for Native American basketmakers to use in crafting traditional baskets.

A collaborative effort between New York Sea Grant (NYSG) and Cornell University, the planting of more than 1,000 seedlings is scheduled to begin in May. Black ash (Fraxinus nigra) was once abundant in the region, but was made scarce by the loss of habitat, partly because of the development of the St. Lawrence Seaway that opened in 1959.

Dave Greene, a NYSG community issues specialist, and Peter Smallidge, a Cornell Extension state forester, are collaborating with the residents of the Akwesasne Mohawk reserve in upstate New York.

"Planting the trees will not only restore the species to the area, but will revive an important cultural and economic craft, the creation of beautiful black ash baskets," said Greene.

Basketmakers pound black ash logs into strips. Special knives are used to make the strips wider or thinner, depending on the need of the basketmaker. Baskets range from utilitarian pack baskets to delicate pieces that can be used to store jewelry.

One basketmaker, Mary Adams, created a tiered "wedding cake" basket that is in the collection of the Smithsonian, Greene said.

He noted that some of the dozen landowners who will be participating in the project will use the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Natural Resource Conservation Service's Wetlands Reserve Program (WRP) to support their efforts.

Black ash is a wetlands species and grows slowly. To ensure the seedlings' survival, they will be planted in areas that traditionally supported black ash as well as in some experimental sites.

"Those in the experimental areas will be studied to gauge the ecological and financial efficacy of using ‘tree shelters' to protect the seedlings from browsing deer and competing vegetation," said Smallridge. The tree shelters are four-foot long tubes, made of either solid plastic or wire mesh, that encompass the seedlings.

One potential planting site is the Akwesasne Freedom School, a Mohawk-language-only school in Hogansburg, N.Y., where sugar maple and sweetgrass also will be planted. The sugar maple is used for maple syrup and sugar, and plays an important cultural role in a ceremony that marks the start of spring and the start of new life. The aromatic sweetgrass is used as incense in smudge ceremonies, as well as in basketmaking.

Greene also received a grant from New York State's Rural Development Council that will be used for a project leading to a video demonstrating black ash basketmaking.

NOAA's mission is to describe and predict changes in the earth's environment and to conserve and manage wisely the nation's coastal and marine resources.