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Why an eccentric band of tree lovers is cloning an ancient forest Add to ...

What was clear was that big money can grow on trees. Archangel often “gifts” clones of iconic trees to donors who aren't necessarily environmentally minded but who respond to their historic and spiritual significance. Three years ago, Mr. Milarch and Leslie Lee, a Michigan-based businesswoman and philanthropist, launched Archangel Ancient Tree Archive, and took the cloning of ancient trees global. In addition to cloning environmental hard workers known for skills such as carbon-sequestering and phyto-remediation (the ability to remove toxins from soil), the wish list includes the mythic kauri trees of New Zealand and the ancient cedars of Lebanon, widely mentioned in scripture.

Cloning the mighty redwoods

First on Archangel's to-clone list were ancient redwoods – now only native to California and Oregon but genetic ancestors of which once thrived in many parts of the world, fossil records show. Bigger, grander and more showy than other tree species, they inspire awe, something environmentalists have long leveraged. Mr. Milarch, a gentle but passionate man not prone to emotional sobriety, is quick to point out that only 5 per cent remains of the original old-growth redwood forest, and of that, only 10 per cent is protected. “If you had one-half of 1 per cent of your life savings left, wouldn't it be time to do something?” he asks.

But if there's heightened emotion in the green community, it reflects the worrisome uncertainty in the scientific one about how trees, which have been on the planet for millions of years, will cope with today's climate change. “What's alarming is not the amount of change that's predicted as much as the speed with which it's happening,” says Sally Aitken, a forest geneticist at the University of British Columbia who is not involved with Archangel.

Climate models show that for trees in North America to stay in their environmental comfort zone, to which they are currently adapted, they would have to migrate 700 kilometres over 70 years. But studies from the last ice age have estimated how fast trees can migrate. “They can only shift their range at about 100 metres a year” to survive the climate change under way, Dr. Aitken says. Redwoods, in particular, live in what scientists call a “narrow climatic niche.”

The concern has led to widespread discussion in policy and academic circles, leading many to support “assisted migration” – humans helping trees move. Some scientists warn that assisted migrations that are too extreme put other trees at risk.

Nonetheless, Mr. Milarch's vision is to reforest parts of the world with cloned ancient redwoods. (The species, grown from seed, has been planted with success in parts of the world, including Australia and New Zealand.) Most redwoods live 1,000 years, and only a few live 2,000 to 3,000 years, and that's why Archangel wants to use their clones for reforestation. Some scientists question whether it's the genetics of ancient trees or simply the superior environment in which they happen to grow that causes their longevity. But in an effort to be thorough and cautious, Archangel has cloned ancient coastal redwoods and giant sequoias (their cousins) across the full range of their habitats – from the coldest extreme to the hottest and driest.

“It's an interesting, though unproven, idea that trees that have gotten very big or very old have some very special qualities for lasting over long periods of time in substantial swings in climate,” says William J. Libby, a global expert on clonal forestry and professor emeritus at University of California, Berkeley, who acts as a consultant for Archangel. “You can't say that about any one tree, but if you gather 100 such trees, it's pretty likely that you have some trees that are better able to do that than just your average tree.”

In wanting to ensure the preservation of the species, Mr. Milarch points to the stellar environmental skills of redwoods and the fact that they grow quickly for their first 800 years, at which point they slow down. Large ones store huge amounts of carbon sucked from the air. The thick bark acts as a fire retardant, but even if they do burn down, the root system produces sprouts more quickly than most of the species that grow in the same habitat. Those attributes would come in handy in an increasingly carbon-emission-rich, hotter, dryer climate. And since they are a gentle species, not bullies quick to muscle out other kinds of trees in a competitive environment, they could use a little human help, some experts say.

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