Last year we chatted with New York Times journalist Jim Robbins about his book The Man Who Planted Trees. It focused on David Milarch, a Michigan tree nurseryman who cofounded the Archangel Ancient Tree Archive, an organization that is working to replant the genetics of the world’s remaining ancient forests.
On the verge of a major profile by the Today Show, as well as one for NBC’s Nightly News, we decided to catch up with Milarch, who has been traveling the world to identify the most important trees and where the oldest species are living.
“Archangel hired three of the most renowned tree minds on Earth and asked them to create a list of the top 100 species on Earth that man absolutely has to have to survive as a species,” Milarch told TakePart.
“Climate change is always the lead criteria for each of the species on the list [that he and his team attempt to clone], along with how close are each of those tree species to extinction, and what must we do to save them,” Milarch said. “And of course, which trees stack carbon faster than any other trees on Earth. That answer is simple: First is the eucalyptus, second is the giant sequoia. So in the top ten, you have cottonwood, giant sequoia, coastal redwoods, eucalyptus, and some of the aspens.”
Milarch explained that most people are focused on trees that are given to them because they’re free or they’re what he called “French poodles”—those specimens with pretty leaves or flowers.
“We discard all of those, and we look for the work horse in the long run, and also the work horses in the short run, that will help get us out of this mess called climate change,” said Milarch. “How can we suck the most carbon and stack it, sequester it, and help turn this thing around?”
Listening to Milarch talk in a folksy manner that’s backed up by an encyclopedic understanding of his subject, it’s easy to be lulled into a sense that what they’re doing at Archangel is pretty straightforward.
In reality, Milarch said, he’s faced an ongoing challenge for 20 years now because most horticultural experts and academics have told him that what Archangel is about to attempt in their next project is impossible or near to impossible.
“They’ll tell us, ‘we tried it and it fails,’ so that’s the mantra we’ve listened to regarding over 130 different species of trees that we have successfully cloned,” said Milarch. “The redwoods and sequoias we just accomplished this with were no exception. We were told adamantly that the oldest sequoia that could be cloned successfully is 80 years old.”
“That’s what we anticipated they'd say, so of course we went for 3,000-year-old sequoias first. In the southern most part of the Sierra Nevada—on 700 acres of private land at the top of the mountains at 8,000 feet—a California tree expert led us to a lost grove of 3,000-year-old giant sequoias. The biggest ones are over 30 feet in diameter.”
Milarch and his team were able to successfully clone the trees and now have multiple copies in their propagation facility in Michigan. In addition, all of them were planted in the world’s first redwood old-grove forest on December 6 in Southern Oregon. “So it worked,” said Milarch, “we can rebuild 95 percent of the redwood range that has been killed.”
He added, “We’ve learned a lot of techniques over the past 20 years working on 150 species of trees and we’ve had success with 130 of those. What separates us is that we will continue to try multiple techniques as long as it takes until we break through—we don’t give up. You can’t fail until you quit trying. We have bulldog tenacity here at Archangel and some pretty damn good state-of-the-art propagators.”
In terms of figuring out where to plant new groves, Milarch explained that most people suffer from “geographic amnesia.”
“When we drive around and explore areas, we think that what we’re looking at is normal, but normally it is not. Most environments now are man created or man assisted. So first off, you have to ask where have these trees thrived for hundreds or thousands of years and, now that almost all environments worldwide are on average two-and-one-half climate zones warmer, where can we help these trees with assisted migration to mimic what they like and will like in their future a few hundred years from now?”
“At Archangel, we look past the geographic amnesia and take a long look at the several hundred year history of the growing zones and where these trees thrived. Then we try and find that in a more northerly climate and help them with assisted migration.”
But most importantly, Milarch noted that the people he works with at Archangel are really serious about going after climate change and reestablishing our ecosystems so that the natural filter systems that we’re so dependent on get put back together.
“However,” he added, “there needs to be a concerted effort by everyone on the planet. Everyone just needs to do a little bit.”
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Lawrence Karol is a writer and editor who lives with his dog, Mike. He is a former Gourmet staffer and enjoys writing about design, food, travel and lots of other stuff. @WriteEditDream | Email Lawrence | TakePart.com