Ancient trees hold hope for climate change

It's not hard to see why David Milarch does what he does. Look around next time you drive through some of Michigan's beautiful northern forests, and recall our state's history.

The trees we see now are mostly the leftovers from centuries of cutting down the biggest and strongest to build homes, businesses and industries. Or, as Milarch calls them, "the junk of the junk"--what's left after the best trees were taken, time after time.

For instance, the Upper Peninsula holds the only known stand of ancient white pines left in the world. The rest all have been harvested.

"What people don't know is that we have geographic amnesia. We take a look around, see our forests, and think this is normal. It's not," he says.

Milarch, of Copemish, makes it his life's work to study and clone genetic material from the largest, oldest trees still alive on the planet, like the giant sequoias of California, the ancient oaks of Ireland, or even the few remaining virgin white pine in Michigan.

Then, he and his colleagues at the Traverse-City based Archangel Ancient Tree Archive replant seedlings grown from the cloned material, along with other seedlings of the same species but from newer genetic stock, to get the best of both worlds as the old and new genes propagate together.

"We're finding the very largest living trees and archiving their genetics," he says. "Not the genetics of the very junk of the junk."

And his ideas have drawn quite a bit of attention as climate change becomes an urgent problem for the world, because of a simple fact: Giant trees like the redwoods are much better at filtering and storing carbon than most modern trees are. A sequoia is about 40 percent carbon, captured from the atmosphere, says Milarch, and 40 percent of a giant sequoia is a pretty large amount.

So, replanting lost forests with ancient trees like those in the archive is a more effective method for slowing or moderating climate change than simply replanting any tree available.

To that end, Milarch is working with NASA scientists to determine what kind of role his giant sequoia seedlings could play in strategic carbon sequestering. They are particularly suited for the job as opposed to other ancient trees, because they are hardy and adaptable enough to grow in climates from sub-Arctic to sub-tropical. Other trees are more suited to other purposes, like black willow, which is good at remediating watersheds, he says.

Archangel has collected genetic material from the biggest and oldest trees still alive in many regions of the U.S., and recently added samples from the 20 oldest oaks in Ireland to its collection. The archive now holds about 70 species of trees.

All the seedlings are grown in Copemish, in an old, converted warehouse that now serves Archangel as a propagation facility to nurse the cloned seedlings to plantable age.

Milarch works there with his two sons, who are raising their own children on the family's land there--the sixth generation in Copemish.

The location reveals the roots of the idea for all this; Milarch began as a tree farmer, working in his family's seed tree company.

"The trees that used to work (producing seedlings), and had worked forever, stopped working. They would die, right down the row," he says. "Well, when what you make your living on doesn't work anymore, you better find out why."

The answers he found were grim: acid rain, water pollution, invasive species, resistant diseases. Modern tree genetics had failed to cope with the pressures. Maybe ancient tree genetics would fare better.

As Milarch researched more possibilities, a startling picture began to form.

"Our forests are the basis for our ecosystem, and they are dying, all over the world," he says.

Reforestation isn't happening as fast or in as many places as needed to counteract how much forest is lost each year, to construction, agriculture, competition from invasive species, or simple failure to reproduce and spread.

He compares the forests, on a global level, to the current problems facing the Great Lakes; invasive creatures like the lamprey or zebra mussel threaten wildlife systems, while air and water pollution or development threaten related wetlands.

"We've started down the road, but we have a long way to go," Milarch says.

Kim Eggleston is a freelance writer and editor based in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. She can be contacted via email.

Photos by Brian Confer

David Milarch holding a cloned Giant Sequoia.
Closeup of a cloned Giant Sequoia
A cloned Giant Sequoia
A cloned Champion Silverberry Tree
A cloned Champion Catalpa Tree
A clone of the Hippocrates Sycamore Tree

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