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by Larry

April, 2013

Big and Tall Growers

People are not the only things that come in enormous sizes. Some of the biggest and tallest in nature also tended to be among the world's oldest, trees that could live for 5000 or more years. Then, in the metaphorical blink of an ancient redwood's or sequoia's eye, the greatest of them all were gone, along with 95% or more of the rest of the old growth sequoias and redwoods, hewn down for firewood or construction timbers by folks who evidently could hardly think a year ahead, much less several thousand. Those ancient redwood and sequoia forests must have been an amazing sight. For a time they were the dominant plants along vast stretches of the Pacific Northwest and supported a rich, interdependent ecosystem while also helping to keep the planet's carbon dioxide in a stable, healthy balance. It is only partly coincidence that when those cathedral-like groves and many other old growth forests around the world disappeared the greenhouse gas began to escalate and now threatens us all with a global transformation.

Yet one idealistic arborist has not given up hope for such wonders. He and his organization, Archangel Ancient Tree Archive (AATA), has found a way to clone them from the stumps of the huge "champion" trees of yesteryear, the best still viable representatives of their stately kinds, and has now begun a marvelous experiment. If it works out, one day there may again be grand stands of those great evergreens in Oregon, Canada, or Alaska, not only feeding people's souls, as it were, for many would be restored in walking through and gazing about such an environment, but also filtering our air, natural sequesterers, their capacities for storing carbon unmatched in the plant kingdom.

The word picture just painted may seem over-the-top, far-fetched, the stuff of fantasy or science fiction, yet on December 4, 2012, David Milarch, a very real shade-tree nurseryman and co-founder of AATA, with help from many other enthusiastic "tree people," actually commenced the project intended to eventually restore old growth sequoia and redwood forests to North America, planting a number of cuttings and clones of those ancient trees near Port Orford, OR. The site is a little north of the existing coast redwood range, chosen because there is concern that more southerly areas may become inhospitable to such behemoths once global warming is more advanced.

Since the early 1990s, Milarch and his team have seen their work as like building an ark to help the biggest and best of the world's trees to survive the coming global warming storm. Earlier they were successful in planting cuttings and clones from prime specimens of white oaks, black willows, and silver buttonwoods.

The clones are like "living libraries," carrying 100% of the old growth trees' genetic code. It is believed by Milarch's team likely that those ancient trees were also superior to seedlings from later growth forests. The efforts with clones of giant old growth sequoias are unique, according to Bill Libby, an expert tree geneticist.

One idea the group has is to assist the movement of redwoods and sequoias northward, a migration necessitated by the advance of hotter, drier conditions and of more intense disease and insect threats as the world warms. They also hope that cuttings and clones may be planted in several areas of the planet, not just in the Pacific Northwest. Since the huge old trees capture the interest of folks from several countries, their project is being nurtured and sustained. Milarch and his supporters think the giant redwoods and sequoias could thrive in Ireland, New Zealand, and so on. Scattering such "carbon sinks" around the planet might at some point tip the balance enough to help avoid runaway climate change.

Others wish the project well but express skepticism. There is no guarantee that the larger, older trees were superior. Perhaps they were merely "in the right place at the right time." They also might require more energy to effectively withstand fires and insect predation as Earth warms up, and so would not be as effective as desired in reducing atmospheric carbon as faster growing forests. They could be less adaptable as well compared with less awesome arboreal stands. Further, the climate a bit north of the big trees' current ranges may as yet be too cold, wildlife may tend to feed on or create wear on the cloned trees (as bears, for instance, like to tear the bark off and get at tasty inner parts or to rub against the bark and so damage the trees too extensively for them to survive).

Triumph of the Archangel Ancient Tree Archive endeavor is clearly not assured, however I am encouraged. If enough people with daring, visionary ideas focus on bringing them to fruition, we may see positive and relevant change in the decades to come. Among them all may be ones that make a genuine difference, so our kind might yet share the sphere with a host of other complex species by the end of the millennium.

Primary source: Ancient Redwoods, Giant Sequoias to Be 'Archived' on Oregon Coast. Scott Learn in The Oregonian; November 27, 2012.

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