Trees are in trouble, and they’re our lifeline
to the future. Here’s how one man is ensuring
the survival of the planet’s most ancient trees.
By Ellen Dee Davidson
In Beyond Religion: Ethics for a Whole World, the Dalai Lama writes, “I have always been a believer in the power of the individual. Throughout human history, many of the great developments that have helped change the course of humanity have emerged through the initiative of individuals. And each of these initiatives began with a vision and a belief in a new and better world.
One individual with initiative is David Milarch. During a near-death experience, visions of angels inspired Milarch with a mission to clone rapidly disappearing ancient trees and plant them in living “tree libraries” around the planet. Although Milarch had previously cloned fruit trees in his shade-tree nursery, he had no idea how to accomplish the task.
No one had succeeded in cloning extremely old trees before, and Milarch did not have lots of money, political connections or special training to help him succeed. But Milarch knew he had to try. “The genetics of the biggest trees are disappearing. Someone’s got to clone them and keep a record,” he says, adding, “A tree that lives a thousand years might know something about survival.”
Since old-growth champion trees are proven survivors of drought, pests, diseases and extreme temperature changes, Milarch believes that these trees will be vital to coping with the challenges of climate change. A warming climate stresses forests, creating situations like that of the mountain pine beetle. No longer killed by extremely cold temperatures, pine beetles have increased their swarming season from only a few weeks in July to several months. Entire forests of lodgepole and ponderosa pine have died, or are dying, in Colorado, Wyoming, Idaho and Montana. Other tree diseases possibly correlated to global warming include sudden oak death, elm disease, leaf blight and thousand cankers disease, which is killing every black walnut in Boulder County and beyond.
It’s heartbreaking to watch trees sicken—and dangerous for us, as well. As scientists conduct further research on forests, it’s becoming increasingly clear that trees are essential to our survival. One of the most important things they do is sequester the carbon that’s causing the climate to warm, as well as provide the oxygen all creatures need to breathe.
But trees also offer a host of other services and, as Milarch says, “they do it all for free.” Trees give fruits, nuts and many medicines. Strategically planted next to a building, trees can reduce air-conditioning and heating costs. Planted along creeks and streams, trees like willows purify the water from sewage, pollutants and heavy metals. Having trees around even improves human moods and has been proven to lower crime rates.
Something about trees just beginning to be studied is the way they emit chemicals called aerosols into the atmosphere. Different aerosols act as natural sunscreens, pesticides and medicines. Black walnuts, for instance, release an aerosol called juglone. For the tree, this aerosol acts as an insect repellent. For humans, just walking by and breathing it in boosts the immune system and may help prevent cancer.
Because of the many benefits of trees, Milarch says, “it’s time to restore our forests.” In order to do this, he cofounded a nonprofit organization called Archangel Ancient Tree Archive. Running on a shoestring of donations and a few grants, Milarch and his team have already managed to clone and plant all sorts of champion old-growth trees, including oaks, black willows, redwoods, spruces, sequoias and pines.
Milarch believes redwoods are particularly important, because they sequester the most carbon—up to 4 tons per tree. His first planting of a grove of small redwoods cloned from giants more than 2,000 years old took place in 2012 in southern Oregon.
In honor of Earth Day 2013, Archangel Ancient Tree Archive planted 4,000 old-growth redwood clones collected from the oldest, stoutest California coastal redwoods, and from stumps of the largest-ever redwoods logged more than a century ago. The global planting of champion redwoods occurred in nine locations in seven countries: Germany, Ireland, Wales, England, New Zealand, Australia, and in California and Oregon in the U.S. “Locating these trees in multiple locations worldwide will help ensure their chances of long-term survival in the face of climate change,” Milarch says.
Aware that climate change is creating warmer conditions, Milarch employs a technique called “assisted migration” to restore forests. This is when humans help by planting trees outside of their normal range, which is what happened on Earth Day. Although forests do tend to migrate a bit by dropping seeds at their edges, this is often no longer possible due to roads and developments. Also, the natural process is too slow to deal with a rapidly changing climate. The 2012 Oregon redwood planting was to the north of the species’ normal range, which Milarch believes will be the ideal climate for redwoods in the near future.
Milarch says assisted migration might also help with problems like the pine beetles. Pines in the southern range have already adapted to warmer climates and may have more resistance to pests like beetles when planted farther to the north. Also, it might help to plant a variety of pines to determine which ones have the highest survival rates. Of course, Milarch believes that clones from the oldest trees that have already proven their longevity are our best bet.
One thing Milarch is certain about is that we need to do everything we can to save our forests. “Trees are only important if we want clean air and water,” he says.
“It’s amazing for one layman to come up with the idea of saving champion trees as a meaningful way to address the issues of biodiversity and climate change,” says Dr. Rama Nemani, senior earth scientist at the NASA Ames Research Center. “This could be a grass-roots solution to a global problem. A few million people selecting and planting the right trees in the right places could really make a difference.”
Milarch is one individual making a big difference. For more information, or if you’d like to help, visit www.ancienttree archive.org. As the Dalai Lama notes in his book, “It is likewise collections of individuals who, in supporting each of these campaigns, have helped bring about lasting change. Since society itself is nothing but a collection of individuals, human beings just like you and me, it follows that if we want to change society, it is up to each one of us to make our contribution.”
Milarch says, “If I can do it, anyone can.”
Ellen Dee Davidson is a children’s book author who lives in California and has fallen in love with a very special redwood in Prairie Creek State Park.