Roots of regeneration

By Jane Stebbins, Pilot staff writer December 05, 2012 09:18 am

David Milarch holds one of 250 clone saplings that will be planted near Port Orford. The Pilot/Jane Stebbins
David Milarch holds one of 250 clone saplings that will be planted near Port Orford. The Pilot/Jane Stebbins
David Milarch’s tree-planting project is a grand beginning to a majestic legacy.

The Michigan man and a few foresters braved torrential rain, 50 mph wind and 70 degree slopes to climb a to ridge on Ocean Mountain Ranch south of Port Orford and plant 20, 3-foot-tall redwood saplings.

These aren’t any ordinary trees.

They are genetically identical to 2,000-year-old coastal redwoods and 3,000-year-old sequoia trees cloned five years ago from the tips of branches growing from the stump of a tree cut down 122 years ago. The stump is 32.5 feet in diameter, compared to Sequoia National Park’s General Sherman redwood, measuring 29.5 feet in diameter.

“It was 1,000 years old when Jesus walked here,” Milarch said. “That’s the only way I can kind of get and understanding of how old they are.”

It’s creating quite a stir worldwide, as horticulturists said it couldn’t be done.

“They said, ‘What does a dirt farmer from Michigan know about redwood trees? It can’t be done. We’ve tried; we’ve failed,’” he told a group of almost 20 gathered for a presentation at the visitors center in Port Orford Tuesday. “We’d cloned other trees they said we couldn’t do. And we’ve got some real special ones here.”

Their planting is the world’s first of a “champion” redwood and sequoia forest.

It’s the culmination – and the beginning – of a dream Milarch and Port Orford developer Terry Mock have to save the ancient giants from dying in the face and the force of climate change.

Milarch is the co-founder of the Archangel Ancient Tree Archive and the Champion Tree Project, whose goal is to propagate old trees, reforest and archive their genetics for the future.

Mock was looking for tougher trees for his urban landscaping plans.

“All the trees marketed were being picked for their aesthetics: big flowers, fall colors – planned obsolescence. The more that die, the more they get to sell.”

The two got together 15 years ago in an attempt to save the gene pool of the world’s oldest trees, the champions of their species. Milarch’s done it with other trees, from a 400-year-old oak that toppled in a storm in Maryland and trees originally planted in Mt. Vernon by George Washington.

“If they lasted as long as they have, they’ve had to endure a lot of environmental stress in their lifetimes,” Mock said of their thought process. “We said, ‘Let’s try it.’”

The Fieldbrook Stump was that tree. It was 400 feet tall – bigger than the General Sherman tree is today and touted as the biggest tree in the world – when it was cut down. 

The stump was no more dead in 1890 than is the dream today to keep its genetics alive, as climate change increasingly threatens the giants’ existence elsewhere. It’s called “assistance migration,” and involves moving trees to areas that might be more hospitable as the climate warms.

The giant trees, in particular, take a long time to reproduce, much less migrate from uninhabitable situations, be it rising oceans or warmer temperatures. And climate change is taking place at a much faster clip.

“We’re following the science,” Mock said. “Science says climate change is here and it’s going to accelerate. The (planting) zones will move north. Every farmer in America understands this. A whole group of people say it’s a hoax. But it’s happening.”

His property, Ocean Mountain Ranch, is just north of the native range for redwood trees. And fossil records indicate the world was once covered in the species, indicating they can grow everywhere except the poles, Milarch said.

“Will they grow great there? Will they reproduce?” Mock asked. “We’re not saying we know all the answers. This is a great experiment.”

The soil of the land where the Fieldbrook tree grew is very much like that on Mock’s 163-acre ranch. Fog, vital for a redwood’s survival, rolls in off the ocean.

“If we can’t sustain life here, where the hell else on the planet are we going to?” he said. “We’re a sweet spot in this climate change. As it gets hotter and dryer, we’re cool and moist. We’ve got what life needs.

“And they said it wouldn’t work,” Mock added. “We did it. And we broke all the horticultural rules doing it.”

Breaking those rules is, in the research world, verboten. And there’s a saying that describes it: The “Not Invented Here Syndrome,” when an outsider discovers something others have not.

The defense is, “No, that can’t work, and if it did, we’d know about it.”

“David was originally discredited, but he won’t take ‘no’ for an answer,” Mock said. “We’ve disproved a lot of theories horticulturists had,” he said. “But we have the technology. This is a way to bring it back.”

Planting day

The group has 250, 4-and-half-year old cloned saplings, of which 200 are coastal redwoods and the rest giant sequoias. But the champ of the champion are the ones propagated from the coastal Fieldbrook Stump in Humboldt County.

Years ago, Milarch hiked to the stump and, trying a new technique, cut a tip from the end. They mixed up a “secret sauce,” placed the tip in a mist house and crossed their fingers.

The chances of success were unknown.

“It’s like being a 150-year-old man to father a child,” Mock said. “You can do it, you just need to use a different technique. The first generation of clones you may only get 1 percent (success). That’s failure for horticulturists. We’re not interested in making money. We just want one of them to live.”

The ancient trees are vitally important to life on the planet, Milarch said. The tree cut down 120 years ago weighed 1,000 tons, he said, the weight of nine blue whales. It held 400 tons of carbon it had pulled from the atmosphere.

“Take that 400 tons of carbon and these 250 trees?” he said. “You do the math.”

Those trees not only clean the air, but the water that flows from the crags above Port Orford through the 1,320-square-mile Port Orford Community Stewardship Area and into the Redfish Reef.

“We’re taking climate change by the teeth,” Milarch said. “We’re not putting up with it. In 500 years, this tree will be in puberty. In 1,000 years, it’ll be hitting its stride. If any place has its chance for life, it’s right here.”

Saving Curry County

To Milarch, it’s all about the trees.

“We proved the theory of the project in one way,” Mock said. “We have living trees from a now-dead parent. If we hadn’t done it, its genetics would have been gone forever. It was a blind spot in science, where it was ignored, researching genetics of these old trees.

“Don’t we think we ought to preserve these things and study them before they’re gone?” 

“We’re going to build a model,” Milarch said. “We’ve worked our asses off for four-and-a-half years, $3.5 million. We’ve risked life and limb. The government wouldn’t help us, the U.S. Forest Service wouldn’t help us – even the state forest service wouldn’t help us. But we couldn’t be stopped.”

Private donations started to trickle in, and the Archangel Ancient Tree Archive, like the sprouts Milarch examined Tuesday, was born again.

Mock is championing the trees, but he also plans to tuck a multi-use development among the new trees that will be planted and the existing 50-year-old tree-stands on the ranch.

“I want to help facilitate the bigger mission of sustainability,” he said. “You can rebuild the forest as you develop it. I want to build the county out of its bankruptcy.”

Adding the new saplings to the ranks of those already there will help improve the watershed of the Red Fish Marine Reserve below.

“I’m not against clear-cutting; I’ve handled my share of 2-by-4s in my time,” Mock said. “I’m a developer. I want to preserve the viewshed. We have a half-mile of ridgeline that overlooks Battle Rock Park. I’m trying to create a model that’s environmentally sound and economically viable so others will have an alternative to clear-cutting.”

It would also put people back to work.

Mock coined the statement oft-quoted by local politicians: “Curry County going bankrupt is like a man in the middle of Lake Michigan dying of thirst.” We’re drowning in natural resources and we’re broke? Give me a break. We’re just not managing them (forests) properly.

“And if we don’t start now, we may be too late,” he added. “We may be beyond the tipping point already. This is my Alamo. I’m going to make my stand: Port Orford. We’re going to succeed or die trying.”

Milarch, leaving the presentation to be interviewed by the London Times, warned the group that the news of the trees will tourists – and their money.

“Seattle’s rocking with this story,” he said. “When this goes global on AP (Associated Press), how many visitors will be here in the next five years? You’d better be ready. It’s opportunity meeting need. This could be your resurrection. This could be a real part of your fiscal future.”