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October 21, 2002

Restoring the
urban forest

Record-Eagle file photo/Elizabeth Conley
David Milarch loads an ash tree at the Milarch tree farm near Copemish. The red and green ash trees went to Washington, D.C., and were planted near the Pentagon.

How the Champion Tree Project got started

Part two of a two-part series
Read part one: Cloners target ancient bristlecone

Record-Eagle staff writer

OPEMISH — By now, the story has almost attained the status of legend.

   One day back in 1995, 15-year-old Jared Milarch got so frustrated at watching the sick and dying trees on his family’s farm that he told his brother and father he wanted to get out of the tree business altogether.

   “I remember asking my dad: ‘Why can’t we have trees like those big ones you and grandpa are always taking us to see?’¡” said Jared, who’s now 23.

   That got his father thinking. Dave Milarch, 53, is a second-generation tree farmer, and he knew all about the ancient art of cloning, or grafting trees. But grafting is done primarily to produce bigger fruit or more colorful blossoms; Milarch had never heard of anyone cloning the big strapping specimens known as “champion trees” simply to produce healthier trees.

   So he and Jared decided they’d be the first. In 1996 they gathered buds from seven Michigan champions and sent them to an Oregon nursery with years of cloning experience. That was the start of the Champion Tree Project, dedicated to cloning and reproducing the biggest, healthiest and oldest trees in America.

   The Project began as a modest, homespun effort; the Milarchs talked with tree enthusiasts around the country and set up a loose federation of state chapters whose members would locate and clone the champion tree in their own neighborhoods, creating “living libraries” at college campuses, arboretums and botanical gardens where they could be studied over time.

   But it wasn’t long before the Milarchs and their work attracted the attention of Terry Mock, a South Florida real estate developer who’d spent his career trying to find ways to improve what he calls the “urban forest” — the trees that grow in cities, suburbs and other human communities. An early advocate for the use of native plant groupings in residential and commercial development, Mock was also concerned about the poor quality of the nursery stock available for large-scale urban plantings.

   “I know the tree business, and I can tell you that trees are not selected for their durability or longevity or sustainability,” he said. “They’re selected for the biggest flowers or because they grow quickly and can be brought to market in a hurry.”

   When he saw an article about the Champion Tree Project in American Nurseryman magazine, Mock realized the Milarchs might hold the secret to healthier, more sustainable urban forests. He immediately phoned Dave Milarch, who’d already been thinking along the same lines, and at the end of a 30-minute conversation they were partners.

   Mock’s involvement in the Champion Tree Project changed everything — including the scope of the organization’s goals. Suddenly the idea was much bigger than preserving the DNA of champion trees by hiding them away on college campuses. With missionary zeal, Mock and the Milarchs decided to use those trees as the opening wedge in a campaign to restore and revitalize America’s urban landscape.

   “Champion trees are only part of it now,” said David Milarch. “We’re way beyond cloning tree by tree now. That was grade-school stuff.”

   And it wasn’t long before they also found themselves with some powerful new friends. In 2000, the Champion Tree Project became partners with The National Tree Trust, an educational effort founded by President George Bush and established by Congress in 1990. Retired Marine Gen. George Cates, who headed the Trust, saw the potential in the Champion Tree Project almost immediately.

   “Depending on whose research you’re reading, the average lifespan of a street tree in an urban setting is seven to nine years,” said Cates. “If genetics does play a key role in tree longevity, and if we’re able to use this knowledge to increase the life of our street trees by a factor of five, 10, 20 or 30, that would be a tremendous gift to the American people.”

   The Trust has provided the Milarchs and their organization with some much-needed funding. (According to Dave Milarch, it costs around $250,000 to clone a single tree species and bring it to market.) Just as important, the group’s congressional charter and national prestige have provided them with crucial access to important historical, natural and scientific sites.

   Cates helped arrange for the Champion Tree Project to plant its clones at Arlington National Cemetery, in Salt Lake City at the site of the 2002 Winter Olympics and at Mt. Vernon, where browsing deer have devastated a once lush plantation forest. Last month they planted a memorial grove of champion ash trees at the Pentagon in memory of the victims of the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks, and champion trees are being included in the reforesting of the U.S. Capitol grounds.

   Such high-profile projects have brought plenty of publicity, which is exactly what the Project’s organizers have hoped for. The Milarchs have been featured on NBC’s “Today Show,” while extensive stories on the Champion Tree Project have appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Boston Globe and USA Today. In turn, the publicity has generated more interest at home and abroad.

   The government of China has been in touch with them about cloning their country’s most celebrated trees. And negotiations are underway for a partnership agreement with Bartlett Tree Experts of Massachusetts, the world’s third largest tree care company, which cares for trees on most of world’s largest estates. According to Milarch, Queen Elizabeth II has already asked Bartlett about the possibility of bringing the Champion Tree Project in to clone the champion trees of England, Scotland and Wales.

   Although it made fewer headlines, a more significant development may have been the presentation Mock presented last month at the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg, South Africa. There he laid out the Champion Tree Project’s ambitious plan to save the planet through a combination of public-spiritedness and profitability by creating sustainable urban forests.

   The world’s old-growth forests are disappearing at an alarming rate, said David Milarch, and even the most aggressive preservation efforts can’t do more than save what remains. But by planting hardy native trees that can survive and propagate in the hostile environment of an industrialized world, nations can reclaim their urban areas as places of greenery and health.

   “Like it or not, the urban forest is going to be the dominant terrestrial ecosystem on this planet,” he said. “What we need to do is create a sustainable urban forest — a forest whose value comes from what it is, not what can be made from it. Trees produce oxygen, absorb carbon dioxide and other pollutants, stabilize soil and prevent runoff, provide shade to cool the air and provide wildlife habitat. And not incidentally, they improve the value of the real estate.”

   The plan is to create a network of public and partnerships in which champion tree clones, known commercially as ChampTrees, will be grown and marketed under a strict system of grades and standards — the first in the industry — and sold under the ChampTree trademark as guaranteed genetically superior planting stock. If successful, it will represent the largest commercial introduction of new trees in history.

   The organization still plans to preserve hundreds of the descendants in five “living libraries” in different climatic zones: Arlington National Cemetery, Mount Vernon, the Florida Botanical Gardens, the Oregon Botanical Gardens and Dearborn’s Greenfield Village.

   To offset the hefty cost of bringing new clones to market, the Project is negotiating for corporate sponsorships for each new clone. (The Microsoft ChampTree White Oak, for example.) And although Mock estimates that the cloned trees may cost as much as 20 percent more than other nursery trees, he believes there’ll be enough customers interested in guaranteed quality.

   “We’re going to be the Ralph Lauren of trees,” he said. “These are going to be designer trees, not just in their genetics but in the production techniques that will be used to grow and bring them to market. This is an opportunity to put a national brand name on something that’s never had a brand name before.”

   Meanwhile, a royalty from the sale of each tree will be returned to the project for use in promotion, education and research. The goal of the Champion Tree Project, said Jared Milarch, is to be a completely self-sustaining nonprofit organization, “not one of those nonprofits that are always going back with their hand out to the government or the foundations that fund them.”

   Such free-market talk may resonate well in the forests of northern Michigan, but it has raised hackles among some traditional environmental groups. Along with new opportunities, Champion Tree Project organizers are encountering more than their share of sniper fire from rival organizations. They’re accused, for instance, of making overinflated claims about the role genetics play in tree health.

   It’s a charge they passionately deny. Although everyone involved in the Champion Tree Project has a strong suspicion that genetic factors are responsible for much of the vigor evident in large, old or exceptionally hardy trees, they’re careful to repeat, again and again, that the subject has not received enough study for anyone to make dogmatic statements one way or the other. In some cases, they say, environmental factors like sun, wind, rain or the simple grace of God may turn out to be as significant as genetics.

   “I think these trees have survived for a variety of reasons,” said Cates. “It wasn’t just luck. But the truth is that we really don’t know, because until now it hasn’t been studied.”

   Procuring genetic material for scientific study was precisely why the Milarchs started the Champion Tree Project, said Mock — and it’s why they’re spending a great deal of time and money chasing down trees like the bristlecone pine that will never be commercially valuable. But such dramatic and inspiring trees also can serve as rallying points, he added, to raise public awareness and support for a national reforestation campaign.

   But those champion trees are intended to be more than symbols. Eventually, the Project’s organizers envision a national reforestation effort in which as many as 10 percent of the new plantings will be champion tree clones.

   In the meantime, they plan to continue harvesting, cloning and studying the “gentle giants” to learn the secret of their success. Already, they’ve cloned 70 champion trees, and their current plans are to propagate as many as 50 new species a year. At that rate, it still will take the Project 20 years to clone all the national champions in the United States — and that doesn’t include the state and regional champion trees, or the requests from foreign countries.

   All this mounting work and attention has turned the quiet Milarch farm upside down. While David and Jared spend nearly all their time planning sampling expeditions, negotiating partnerships and giving media interviews, Jared’s younger brother Jacob has had to take over much of the business while trying to keep his college grades up. He and David’s wife Kerry are the “unsung heroes” of the story, said Dave.

   “They’ve sweated and sacrificed so we could go running all over the country,” he said. “My wife has had the patience of Job just putting up with the phone calls.”

   And, in truth, the farm business hasn’t really been getting all the attention it needs, Jared admitted.

   “What else could we do?” he asked. “This really is the biggest thing that’s ever happened in the tree industry, and right now I wouldn’t want to be doing anything else.”

There are lots of ways to clone trees

Record-Eagle staff writer

   COPEMISH — The word “cloning” sounds very futuristic and high-tech, but cloning a tree isn’t anything like cloning a sheep, a dinosaur or a human being. In fact, people have been cloning trees and other plants for thousands of years.

   The most common way to clone a tree — the one every local fruit grower knows — is to graft living buds from one specimen onto the root stock of another. When the buds eventually sprout, they bear leaves, flowers and fruit that are genetically identical to the tree from which they were taken.

   When David and Jared Milarch first began asking about the possibility of cloning champion trees — the largest, oldest and most historically significant examples of each species — their questions were met with puzzled shrugs. Nobody had tried such a thing before, apparently, and many of the horticulture industry’s best minds weren’t sure it could be done. They compared it to an old man trying to father children.

   “They didn’t know what they were talking about, because they’d never tried it themselves,” said David Milarch. “But that was the accepted wisdom.”

   Not every tree responds well to grafting, however. To ensure as many successful clonings as possible, the Champion Tree Project relies on its partnerships with nearly 100 nurseries, plant laboratories and universities to select the best technique for each tree. All told, the various methods for cloning trees can be gathered under four main headings:


   Grafting is the best-known method of cloning trees, but there are several different ways to do a graft. Not all of them work equally well with particular trees, and some species of trees must be grafted carefully. Maryland plant scientist Frank Gouin, who successfully grafted his state’s famed Wye Oak after other scientists had failed for 20 years, used a method called “chip budding” in which a bud from the oak was grafted onto a seedling grown from one of the tree’s own acorns (to match as much of the DNA as possible) and wrapped it in wax to lock in the moisture.

   “Oaks are very difficult to clone, no matter how you do it,” he said. “That’s why only 10 to 15 percent of my grafts took.”

   Air Layering

   Air layering is also a time-tested propagation technique, used in China more than 4,000 years ago. It involves making a cut in the stem of a plant and enclosing the wounded area in moist compost and moss until roots begin to form. Once the roots are developed, the new plant is severed from its parent and planted separately.

   Rooted Cuttings

   In this technique, which is used in the propagation of many evergreens, cuttings from the tips of branches are treated with rooting hormones and placed in a special growing medium until roots appear. The cuttings can then be placed in soil and grown in a nursery.

   One variant of this technique, used for pines and other needle-bearing trees, is needle fascicle propagation, in which the small bundles of needles, known as fascicles, are treated with hormones until they produce buds. The technique has been used by California tree scientist William Werner to propagate disease-free clones of the Monterey Pine. Werner will be trying to clone replicas of the long-lived Methuselah Tree.

   Tissue Culturing

   The most laboratory-intensive propagation method, tissue culturing involves removing embryonic cells from the buds of a tree and placing them in a laboratory culture dish with a carefully measured dose of hormones. Under careful supervision, the treated cells eventually multiply, sprout roots and grow into adult trees.

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