Environment Picture

Michigan’s Archangel Ancient Tree Archive drawing national notice

Tiny nonprofit has lofty goal
For a tiny nonprofit headquartered in the northern Michigan village of Copemish, the Archangel Ancient Tree Archive sure gets a lot of ink. 

The group has received in-depth coverage in The New York Times, on NPR and just about any other major media outlet you’d care to mention. Reporters are intrigued by the little nonprofit’s lofty goal—preserve the world’s forests by traveling the globe to clone Earth’s biggest, strongest trees and replant them where their genetics will thrive. 

When MEC spoke with Archangel founder David Milarch in mid-March, three documentaries about his work were in production, and a video crew from the CBC had visited the week before. Milarch and his work are the subject of a 2012 book, The Man Who Planted Trees, by Jim Robbins. It’s the kind of press most environmental groups only dream of. 

That’s in part because Milarch is no straight-from-central-casting environmentalist. The bear-sized nurseryman and former competitive arm wrestler is fond of smoking Marlboros and peppering his conversation with profanity. 

In 1991, realizing his heavy drinking had become alcoholism, he locked himself in a room and vowed to stay there until he got sober or died. It was nearly the latter. His kidneys and liver shut down from the sudden shock, and Milarch says he had a near-death experience. He awoke convinced his purpose in life was to restore the planet’s forests by cloning, propagating and replanting the world’s biggest, oldest trees before they’re gone. In 1996, he founded the nonprofit Champion Tree Project, which later became Archangel. 

While his personal story is hard to resist, Milarch says it’s the group’s straightforward mission and the urgency of the work that is so intriguing. 

“There’s a tremendous need to do something to help slow or reverse climate change, and also to help re-establish the natural ecosystems of the world,” he said. “Our project fits that to a T in all its simplicity. It is a project whose time has come.” 

Less than 10 percent of America’s old-growth forest remains. The woods we’ve grown accustomed to are full of scraggly runts, Milarch says—the leftovers after loggers cut the biggest, healthiest trees. In his book, Robbins calls it evolution in reverse. 

“How do you fix the destruction of the world’s old-growth forests?” Milarch asks. “You rebuild them.” 

In the genes? 
His guiding assumption is that champion trees may contain survival secrets worth preserving. Planting their clones where they can cross-pollinate other trees helps spread those favorable genetic traits throughout forests. 

Critics argue that it’s unclear if those trees achieved their age and stature because of superior genes, or if they simply have been lucky. Some also claim that cloning, while relatively simple for young trees, is impossible for the ancient specimens that capture Milarch’s attention. As journalist Melissa Faye Greene wrote in a recent Reader’s Digest story, it is “like soliciting human sperm samples and eggs from nursing homes, hospices, and cemeteries.” 

Archangel has silenced critics on that second point. By taking tissue cuttings and painstakingly coaxing roots from them in the lab, they have successfully cloned trees so old they put wrinkles in your sense of history. On Earth Day in 2013, they planted clones of coast redwoods between 2,000 and 3,000 years old in nine locations around the world. Some came from California’s Fieldbrook Stump, the remains of a 32-foot-wide redwood that Milarch says was the largest tree that ever lived. 

Hippocratic roots 
They also have cloned the Hippocrates Sycamore, a tree in whose shade the man known as the father of western medicine taught students some 2,400 years ago on the Greek island of Kos. And in 2003 they grew seedlings from what is thought to be the oldest tree on earth, a 4,800-year-old bristlecone pine known as Methuselah. The tree was already well rooted in California’s White Mountains when the ancient Egyptians built their pyramids, and about eight centuries old by the time woolly mammoths went extinct. (While they didn’t clone it—they grew seedlings from cones, not cuttings—bristlecone pines can self-pollinate, so the new trees may be genetically identical to Methuselah.) 

Milarch said the group has succeeded where others have failed because they are simply unwilling to give up. “It boils down to two people: My son Jake Milarch and his partner Tom Brodhagen,” he said. “They have pushed through every barrier. They refuse to quit. They stay up nights searching the Internet to find anyone else who has tried it and why they’ve failed.” 

Whether or not ancient trees are genetically outfitted for survival, Milarch says cloning them makes common sense. “If you saw the last dinosaur egg,” he asks in Robbins’ book, “would you pick it up and save it for study or let it disappear?” 

And, he adds, as climate-related changes in the environment become more disturbing and harder to ignore, our forests need any advantage we can give them. Studies have found some trees are moving up mountain slopes as temperatures warm, while others are responding to climate change by speeding up their lifecycles. 

Meanwhile, western forests are suffering the worst pine beetle outbreak in North American history. No longer kept in check by winter’s deep freeze, the bugs have killed hundreds of millions of pines—trees made more vulnerable to pests by prolonged drought—turning wide swaths of forest from green to brown along the entire span of the Rocky Mountains. The beetles have killed more than 37 million acres of pines in British Columbia alone. 

Trees may be among the first victims of climate change, but Milarch is bullish on their potential also to atone for mankind’s climate sins. 

For instance, last year researchers reported that climate change appears to have caused a growth spurt in coast redwoods and sequoias, suggesting that planting more of those trees could be an especially effective way to sop up atmospheric carbon. Similarly, another research team made headlines this year when they reported that, contrary to conventional wisdom, trees grow faster and store more carbon the older they get. The largest trees covered just 6 percent of the forests the scientists studied in the western U.S., but they made up a third of the annual growth of forest mass. 

At our service 
Of course, trees do more than store carbon. Among other services, they excel at filtering water. In his book, Robbins gives the example of Enköping, a town in Sweden that uses a 190-acre willow plantation as its sewage treatment facility and uses the trees’ annual growth as a biofuel to produce electricity. 

Milarch especially loves black willows for the water filtration they provide. “The black willows that are native to this state are just incredible,” he said. “They would clean up the Rouge River, no problem.” In fact, Archangel has thousands of black willow clones available for free to anyone who asks for them. “Let’s start cleaning up your lakes, your rivers, your wetlands,” Milarch said. 

As word spreads about Archangel’s work, demand for the group’s expertise is through the roof, Milarch said. “The whole world is clamoring for us to come and help,” he said. “The demand globally is just unbelievable.” 

Yet somehow that enthusiasm has not translated into funding. Late this winter, the organization laid off three-quarters of its staff, leaving just five people to identify, clone, care for and plant champion trees. 

“The main issue is funding,” Milarch said. “To go to other countries, collect and reproduce trees is quite expensive, and Archangel is a nonprofit funded solely by donations.” 

Milarch said the group works all over the world but has strong Michigan connections. For instance, he and colleagues gave the University of Michigan’s Matthaei Botanical Gardens a 4,000-year-old champion sequoia they cloned, and U-M students are working on a project to determine how many such trees it would take to offset the university’s carbon footprint. 

“I am a fourth-generation nurseryman on our farm here in Copemish,” Milarch said. “My sons and grandchildren also live on the farm, so we have a sixth generation here. We aren’t going anywhere.” 

All the news coverage of Archangel has led to a wave of visitors to the group’s headquarters near Traverse City. Milarch welcomes the guests—he is a tireless evangelist of the big-tree gospel—but he wants to make sure he gets his important work done. 

“I invite anyone who likes trees to come visit,” he said. “But please call first.”
-Andy McGlashen
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