David Milarch started archiving "champion trees" 20 years ago, after a near-death experience and a vision that told him trees are essential for the future of the planet. Not just pretty to look at—essential for survival. Trees, Milarch says, provide key "environmental services" that we can’t live without, and that are difficult to replicate: cleaning air and water of toxins, reflecting infrared light back into space, soaking up greenhouse gases, providing natural medicines for animals, regulating the supply of oxygen.
And yet, he says, there is still a lot we don’t know about trees. Why, for example, do some gigantic Sequoias live to be 3,000 years old? Or, how do trees apparently communicate with each other, by emitting chemical signals? Or, why is it that fish die in lakes when you cut down certain surrounding trees? Milarch says us humans have chopped a lot of important old species—perhaps 95% of the original total—without understanding trees’ special role in the ecosystem.
"We didn’t understand the role they played, and all the importance they had. We didn’t study it, because we didn’t have the science," he says.
Milarch’s project, called The Archangel Ancient Tree Archive, is a sort of Noah’s Ark of the most of environmentally significant species—"the 100 most important that are absolutely necessary to sustain the ecosystems that human beings need," as he puts it. Milarch, along with his two sons, is traveling the world to identify the six oldest, largest, and strongest specimens of each type, collecting cuttings, then cloning in propagation facilities. By replanting the ancient trees in "living libraries," such as on university campuses, or near medical facilities, they hope to strengthen forests and provide better opportunities for research.
"People with stronger immune systems can take exposure to disease and hardship a lot better than people with weak immune systems. So, it only stands to reason that when you go into a forest, and you cut the best of the best, and you do that four times in every forest, you end up with the junk of the junk of the junk."
But the opposite is also true. You can consolidate forests by planting ancient trees with better genetics, he says. "If Shaquille O’Neal has babies with a seven-foot woman, they probably are not going to end up with Mickey Rooney, or some other very small person," as he puts it.
And, by bringing champions closer to scientists, Archangel hopes to improve the basic science of trees. "It’s too expensive and too hard to bring researchers out to the trees," says Milarch. "So, we’re planting groves on colleges and campuses, where they can be studied into the future for what medicinal cures they might hold. If you can’t bring Muhammad to the mountain, you bring the mountain to Muhammad."
The actual job of cloning and propagating isn’t as easy as you might think—despite the basic techniques being in use for centuries.
For one, Archangel’s climbers need to go right to the tree-tops—sometimes 40 stories high. That is where the best cloning tissue is. For example, the Sequoias produce something called "sun needles"—six-inch growths that sprout vertically from horizontal branches. Milarch describes them as "miniature Christmas trees."
The needles are ideal for cloning. Other, easier-to-get-at, cuttings didn’t work, as people kept telling the Milarchs when they started. "Most scientists around the world said it was impossible. They said asking the biggest, oldest trees to reproduce themselves is akin to having a 120-year-old woman have a baby." Now, Archangel has an 80% propagation success rate, Milarch says.
Having gone to the Netherlands, Ireland, United States, and Canada, Archangel plans this year to visit the U.K. and plant a Giant Sequoia grove (Milarch is looking for an arboretum or university that might have some space). He also plans to go to New Zealand to take cuttings of ancient Kauri trees, and to Turkey and Lebanon to collect various cedar samples.
Meanwhile, New York Times reporter, Jim Robbins, is publishing The Man Who Planted Trees this April that should further help Archangel’s cause. Robbins has followed Milarch for over 10 years, and has spoken to 100 researchers about the science of trees.
"Every schoolchild on Earth should read that book to understand why trees are so critical to our environmental well-being," Milarch says. "Really, they are the base of all ecosystems."