Can David Milarch Save Endangered Trees Through Cloning?

People said David Milarch was nuts. Then his far-fetched plan for saving our treasured trees started to work.

david milarch by tree
Jamie Francis/The Oregonian

The story of the world’s most optimistic and improbable reforestry project began 45 years ago with a young man’s shock and grief.

In 1968, a brawling, shaggy, redheaded, hard-partying 18-year-old named David Milarch (pronounced Mill-ark) graduated from a Detroit-area high school and took off on a road trip with a friend. They cruised along in a ’61 Oldsmobile station wagon, sleeping in the car at night or on the ground nearby. Destination: San Francisco. But Milarch, unlike his buddy, harbored a deeper longing than crashing parties. “Cities didn’t interest me so much,” he says. “I wanted to see the redwood forests.”

The son and grandson of nurserymen, Milarch grew up working on his father’s shade tree farm, where ash, maple, oak, birch, and locust trees were cultivated. From age seven, he was in the fields every day after school and every weekend—weeding, hoeing, digging, and planting. He considered his dad a slave driver but nevertheless says, “I communed with the beauty and the laws of nature. I got a deep understanding of how things worked.” At 18, when it was his turn behind the wheel, Milarch steered not toward the street life of Haight-Ashbury but to Muir Woods National Monument.

There the young men parked and approached the old-growth forest of coast redwoods, also known as California redwoods. The tallest trees on earth (over 300 feet tall), they are also among the oldest, some an estimated age of 2,000 years.

Milarch crunched into the soaring, misty, tangled woodland and felt moved by its haunting majesty, its profound peace and archaic dignity, its crystal streams and twittering bugs and birds. Here, he felt, was holy ground.

But the teenager’s wonder was short-lived. This pristine, cloud-scraping sanctuary was being decimated by logging companies. It was as if he’d knelt in awe in the Notre Dame Cathedral of Paris and looked up to see wrecking balls shattering the stained glass windows. Beyond Muir Woods’s protected 554 acres (of which only 240 still held the foggy, ancient redwoods) stretched a lifeless wasteland. “We drove through hundreds of miles of stumps,” he says. “I felt physically sick.”

Next: “We’ve got to rebuild with the largest and oldest living things on earth.”

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