Are 'Champion Trees' a Climate Change Silver Bullet?

Veteran journalist Jim Robbins discusses the fate of the world's trees and his new book, 'The Man Who Planted Trees'.
Scientists have barely scratched the surface on what they know about the world's trees. (Photo: Creative Commons / gtall1)
Apr 27, 2012· 4 MIN READ
Salvatore Cardoni holds a political science degree from the George Washington University. He's written about all things environment since 2007.

Was he a panicked environmentalist or an eco-visionary—a man who could literally see the forest through the trees—wondered New York Times veteran journalist Jim Robbins?

It was 2000 and Robbins was investigating David Milarch, a Michigan tree nurseryman with an unheard of plan: cloning the oldest, largest trees on the planet in hopes of preserving their genetic thoroughbredness.

As Milarch saw it, the DNA of these so-called champion trees needed to be studied and stored somewhere safe in advance of climate change, which would surely ravage everything ecological in its wake.

Robbins’ article on Milarch exacerbated the journalists’ long-standing arboreal love affair—in 1993, he and his wife purchased 15 acres of ponderosa pine forest in Montana—and eventually led to a book on Milarch and the general state of the world’s trees.

Released earlier this month, The Man Who Planted Trees, explains the science of trees—what we know and, more important, what we don’t, and why trees could be the panacea to our ever-warming world.

In advance of National Arbor Day, I caught up with Robbins for a whirlwind tour through the world of trees.

TakePart: What was the catalytic moment when you decided you had to write this book?

Jim Robbins: A few years ago, I noticed some bark beetles on my property in Montana. We noticed a few trees dying from these bark beetles, and by the next year it tripled in size, and four years later all of the trees on our property were dead or dying. We eventually cut them all down and shipped them off to be made into pulp for paper. I think it was then I realized, wow, trees can die. They can die very fast and climate’s changing. We haven’t had below zero weather cold enough to kill bugs in several years. It’s changing fast and things can change very fast and it's time to figure out what's going on with the trees.

TakePart: Tell my audience why we underestimate the value of trees.

Jim Robbins: I think we take them for granted. I know I did. I never realized all of the things that trees do. There’s a term that governments use called critical infrastructure. These are things like transportation, things like oil and gas, fuel for our cars and so on. When I think of trees as being part of the critical ecological infrastructure—they maintain life and we’ve lost sight of that somehow along the way, at least a lot of us have.

TakePart: What is a champion tree?

Jim Robbins: It is the largest tree of its kind, of its species. That’s measured by the crown size, the diameter of breast height, and the diameter of the tree. These are the prime specimens and it’s not known whether they are big and old, because of their genetics, or because of the luck of the draw—where they happen to grow, for example. Again, it’s one of those things we don’t know about trees. Why there are these big old trees?

TakePart: What capacity are the Earth’s trees operating at, compared to what they should be? Do we have enough of them? What is the perfect amount of trees to have on a planet, do scientists even know this?

Jim Robbins: I would say no, these things are not known. That’s one of the big problems—that’s a million dollar question. Here comes climate change and here’s our ecological infrastructure, our trees, and our forests, and they are less resilient than they’ve been in thousands of years, because we’ve cut so many, we’ve fragmented forests, we’ve stressed them with acid rain and other kinds of pollutants. Our blanket of forest is moth-eaten and torn up.

TakePart: What about just a massive planet-wide tree-planting operation on a scale we’ve never seen before to counteract climate change?

Jim Robbins: I think it’s possible. I’m not an expert. I don’t know if there really are experts who would know whether that would work, but what else do we have? What other arrows in the quiver are there? There aren’t, and I think again, the science of trees and forest and what they do is impoverished. We have to trust nature. Nature has wisdom, nature has a lot of trees on the planet. What we’ve done is destroy the forest in most places where the most people live—urban and suburban areas, so we’ve deprived ourselves of it, these heat shields. So I would say what do we have to lose by a massive tree-planting campaign? Getting everyone involved, finding new places to put trees, and doing it right. It would take a lot of planning and strategy, it is not as simple as it seems; it’s not just going out and plopping trees in the ground, although that can help. I would think we would have to bring together our best available science and best available trees and go for it.

TakePart: The book talks about stuff scientists don’t know about trees, can you tell me some?

Jim Robbins: One of the big things they don’t know much about is aerosols. Trees aerosolize chemicals all the time. Everything from isoprene, which seems to regulate the climate of the boreal forest. As the isoprene in summertime increases from the trees, and it gets warmer, it rises up and creates clouds, and that cloud cover may keep things from getting too hot in the summer. In the wintertime, when there are no aerosols, it warms the forest, so it has this regulation that goes on. Aerosols also contain things like limonene and paro-alcohol and some of those are used as anti-cancer drugs. These things are spewed or aerosolized into the environment by trees all the time, but what role do they play? Is it just a byproduct that has no effect on anything or do these chemicals, powerful chemicals, do things like protect wildlife, and insects against diseases? Willow trees, there are three to four hundred species of willows, and they aerosolize and emit acetylsalicylic acid, which is aspirin. Acetylsalicylic acid is a powerful anti-cancer drug. Recent studies have shown it prevents a range of cancers. Well, what does it do in streams? Does it have an impact on wildlife and on humans if we drink that water? I think that’s a big question, I’d like to know more.

TakePart: On Arbor Day, what’s one thing that people can do that costs less than five dollars and takes less than five minutes to help trees?

Jim Robbins: Well, I’m not sure that it should cost less than 5 dollars. I think that might be a false assumption. I think planting trees is a good thing to do. I think planting trees is a start, and then we should think about community-wide and statewide and international tree-planting efforts. We should all be thinking about those things. We should lift our head out of our bills, and our problems and say okay, we’re here on the planet, it’s time to start thinking about what’s going on. I mean, I think this year was a wakeup call. But I think if people plant trees, they should talk to their landscape expert, or tree person in the city or the suburb that they live in, and figure out what they should plant. It might make a lot more sense to buy a tree, a good hearty native tree from the local store, rather than going to Walmart and paying less, because survival is a big issue when it comes to planting trees. Dig a big hole, lots of soil, and plant a good one. That would be what I think is a prudent thing to do, but it’s also an active hope—it says okay, I'm going to plant this tree, and it’s going to be around here for the next 100 years, and I think that is a way of making a statement in face of some pretty serious problems that seem to be coming our way.