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.

tree seeds
David Milarch/Archangel Ancient Tree Achive/AP Images

The Champion Tree Project inched forward. With permission from private landowners in Michigan, members took grafts from the National Champion ash, elm, and maple. Then Jake Milarch and colleague Tom Broadhagen retreated to the far side of the greenhouse and pushed the frontiers of tree-cloning science. As clones sprouted and took root and saplings were shared around Michigan, the Milarchs looked outside the state and back in time.

At Mount Vernon, they were given access to trees hand-planted by George Washington. Our first president’s ash, hemlock, tulip poplar, mulberry, and American holly proved remarkably easy to clone. Hundreds of saplings from 12 trees were donated by Champion Tree to Mount Vernon, and one was planted on the grounds of the U.S. Congress.

In 2001, the Champion Tree Project made the cover of American Nurseryman magazine and, later that year, the front page of the New York Times Science section in a story by Jim Robbins (who would later write The Man Who Planted Trees, a book about Milarch). Those stories led to new allies, including forestry experts, professors, and donors. In 2008, Milarch renamed the project the Archangel Ancient Tree Archive (ancienttreearchive.org). The work has now reached into 20 states, plus England, Ireland, New Zealand, Australia, and Germany.

One source of pride includes the Hippocrates sycamore: In 1969, Greece gave the United States a sapling cut from the tree under which, according to legend, the father of Western medicine taught the world’s first med students roughly 2,400 years ago. When that gift died, Archangel took still-living grafts from the trunk and cloned them. “We have 50 Hippocrates sycamores—100 percent clones—growing in our greenhouse right now,” Milarch says. “On Arbor Day, there’s going to be a ceremony in front of the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda when we plant one.”

And what of his beloved redwoods? Red tape by state and federal authorities has blocked access for cloning on public land, so Milarch and his sons made frequent trips to California in search of privately owned giants.

“I was in the coast redwoods in 2010,” Milarch says, “and Jake was 700 miles south, in a remote area of the Sierra Nevada, hunting for giant sequoias. He and a brilliant self-taught tree guy named Michael Taylor were stopping in small towns, visiting bars and cafés where loggers hung out, and asking people, ‘Where are the biggest trees?’ and someone had heard a legend about a hidden grove. Jake and Michael followed directions, and they followed intuition and found it. The holy grail. Lost to the world. It was an intact giant sequoia forest of 800 acres, at 6,000-foot altitude.

“Jake sent me a message: ‘Dad. We found them. Get here quick.’ There was a photo of him standing next to a tree so massive, I can’t even find the words.

“I was frantic to get to him. I had someone drive me to the Crescent City airport, but it was fogged in. ‘I’ve got to get inland!’ I said, and we started racing around looking for open airports. Yes, these trees had stood for 3,000 years; yes, they would probably still be standing the next morning. But if you’ve waited your whole life for something, not even knowing if it actually existed … Well, you got to go.

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“I got down there about midnight, and Jake and Michael picked me up. They said, ‘You will not believe your eyes.’ The next morning, we drove to the top of a mountain, privately owned land, guarded by a 91-year-old man who wouldn’t let anyone near his trees. Evidently, he’d been a logger his whole life, and his father before him, and working on teams of hundreds of men, they’d helped cut down millions of acres, and then at some point, I guess he had an epiphany: ‘That’s it. I’m not killing any more giant sequoias.’”

This hidden grove, the Alder Creek Grove, was private land surrounded by Giant Sequoia National Monument. One of the trees in this grove turned out to be the Stagg Tree, the fifth largest in the world by volume. Another was the Waterfall Tree, which has the largest diameter at ground level of any giant sequoia in the world—57 feet across. The owner permitted Jake and Tom to climb the trees and take cuttings.

Milarch remembers thinking, OK, now we’ve got them, but can you clone a 3,000-year-old redwood? Talk about impossible—the oldest giant sequoia ever cloned was 80 years old.

At the far end of the greenhouse in Copemish, Jake and Tom got to work. A month passed without success; five months passed. Jake and Tom grieved each failure, as if they could feel the primeval DNA washing through their fingers. And then a tiny slippery white thread, the size of a pinworm, peeked out of a scraped section of the 3,000-year-old Waterfall Tree.

As this issue was going to press, Milarch’s crew was preparing to embark on a 700-mile redwood expedition, starting in the Sierra Nevada and trekking down the Redwood Coast, photographing the forests and planting 3,000 cloned saplings carrying the mysteries of the millennia in their DNA.

“Our trees will be gifts to the world,” Milarch says. “Gifts to our grandchildren and great-grandchildren.”

But on that day four years ago when Jake Milarch walked toward his father, holding in his shaking hands the slippery sprout of the first baby giant sequoia, he said, “This one’s for you, Dad.”

Melissa Fay Greene is a two-time National Book Award finalist and a contributing editor to Reader’s Digest.

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