Story at a glance

  • A family-run nonprofit from Michigan, Archangel Ancient Tree Archive, is working to clone and plant millions of the world’s greatest trees.
  • The group says these champion trees have the best shot at sequestering carbon from the air, though experts have expressed some skepticism. 
  • Still, experts say the group’s emphasis on tree planting and education are commendable.

David Milarch is not a scientist. And yet his nonprofit, Archangel Ancient Tree Archive, claims to be “a solution to climate change.” Archangel, a family-run outfit in northern Michigan with only a handful of employees, collects clippings of some of the oldest trees in the world (including Methuselah, the 4,800-year-old bristlecone pine known as the world’s oldest tree), clones them and propagates them, with the hope of planting millions around the world as a tool to curb climate change. 

Their lab, a warehouse in Copemish, Mich., is nearly a football field long. Inside, they’ve managed to micropropagate and deliver 200,000 trees for planting across seven countries. Outside of it, they’ve attracted worldwide attention by scaling redwoods, sequoias and other giants of the plant kingdom with sophisticated climbing technology.

One of the group’s selling points is the mere ability to clone these extremely old trees. Milarch claims that before Archangel came on the scene, cloning a 3,000-year-old tree was unheard of. “It’s like a 110-year-old woman giving birth.”

The key is in micropropagation. Dave Gunn, a horticulturalist and arborist at the Missouri Botanical Garden, points out that in order to propagate anything, you need to harvest new growth, called scion wood, from the original plant. “In an apple tree I can find scion wood 12 to 18 inches long, and that's kind of ideal. It gives me plenty of material to work with. But with ancient trees, you’re talking about growth rings that require a microscope.”

To find workable cuttings, Archangel researchers don’t just scale the world’s tallest trunks. They climb to the very edges of the top of the canopy to reach the highest, youngest growth they can. Then they take those samples back to their micropropagation lab, which, according to Gunn, is not common technology for a small, private organization. “At the (Missouri) Botanical Garden, one of the major botanical institutions of the western hemisphere, with a presence in over 50 countries, we're just now putting our micropropagation lab together,” he says. “It’s pretty incredible what they’ve been able to accomplish.”

A question of method

The underlying assumption Archangel is betting on is that our planet’s oldest and biggest trees have some of their species’ strongest genetics, and they deserve to be preserved and planted for carbon sequestration in the fight against climate change. 

That assumption isn’t necessarily true, experts say. “Genetic strength is pretty context dependent,” says Leighton Reid, a restoration ecologist at Virginia Tech. 

Archangel Ancient Tree Archive spends most of its energy on redwoods and sequoias, two of the biggest tree species in the world. The biggest among them might have the best genetics—or they might have the best soil, or the most sunlight, or the least competition. “Would the same strengths that one tree had also contribute to being able to grow up on, say, an eroded hillside?” Reid asks. “I’m not sure. I think that’s an open question.”

And yet, Archangel’s great assumption raises a question: If we have a very small window to save the planet, do we have time for anything else?

“We won’t have those answers firmly in hand for 500 to 2,000 years,” Milarch says. “If you want to be around for that, that’s fine. But right now, where we’re at with climate change and the disasters of toxins in our bodies of water and the rise in temperatures, I would say perhaps we should go ahead and reestablish and utilize these genetics. We don’t have time to split hairs.”

A near-death awakening

There’s a hint of the evangelical in Archangel’s language and bold promises. In the early 1990s, when Milarch was in his 40s, he had a near-death experience. After years of alcoholism, Milarch’s kidneys and liver finally failed. Vowing to quit drinking, he shut himself in his bedroom for three days until his body shut down. 

Milarch says he was lifted out of his body and guided by an angel through a tunnel of white light, where he received a message from the archangel Michael to return to Earth. “I wasn’t about to argue with that energy,” he says. He was led back through the tunnel of light, and the next morning his body began to heal. 

A month and a half later, an angelic voice led him out of bed and told him to gather pen and paper. The next thing he remembers, he was waking up to a seven-page outline of what would become the Champion Tree Project, and eventually the Archangel Ancient Tree Archive. Ever since, preserving and propagating the world’s oldest and biggest trees has been his divine mission.

“I know how it must sound,” Milarch says. “I always hesitate (to tell this story), and I feel funny now. For the first few years I couldn’t tell anyone.” 

Jim Robbins, a New York Times writer and author of the book The Man Who Planted Trees about Archangel Ancient Seed Archive, interviewed near-death-experience experts and psychologists, who concluded that Milarch’s experience, whether accurate or not, is honestly recounted.

Setting records

As for Archangel’s terrestrial efforts, in addition to its employees climbing 250-foot trees to collect tiny clippings, the group managed to clone one of America’s most famous trees: the Wye Oak. Located in Maryland’s Delmarva Peninsula, the Wye Oak was the largest white oak tree in the U.S. until a thunderstorm knocked it over in 2002. Archangel also cloned the Tree of Hippocrates, a 500-year-old plane tree in Greece said to be a descendent of the tree under which Hippocrates, according to legend, once taught. 

Recently, they sent 2,021 giant sequoia clones to Eugene, Ore., for the 2021 IAAF World Track and Field Championships. Black willow, a riparian species, is less sexy than redwoods and sequoias, but Archangel is using them with the hope of repairing watersheds near Lake Michigan and around Washington, DC.

Meg Lowman, a forest canopy ecologist, worked alongside Archangel (then known as the Champion Tree Project) when she taught at the New College of Florida 20 years ago. She shares Milarch’s belief in action. “Tree planting is a great thing to do, but it’s a long-term benefit, and it will benefit largely our grandchildren,” she says. Still, “there’s nothing like an old growth forest, and second best is planting trees.”

In the end, Archangel might be as much about spreading the gospel of trees as it is a model for saving them. The organization puts on a Tree School for children to educate them on tree ID, climbing and propagating. “They leave a science class with what took us 20 years to do,” Milarch says.

Archangel’s flash might, in a way, be as effective in forest restoration as science. “For a tree to store carbon, it has to grow old,” Reid says. “To get old, humans have to take care of trees. And if humans are excited about ancient trees, and that’s a way that they can relate to them, then yeah, maybe that’s a good rationale that these particular trees might have the chance to get a little bit older and soak up more carbon.”

With its small staff, the Archangel Ancient Seed Archive relies entirely on private donations, so if you’d like to contribute, visit their website. They find that redwoods and sequoias attract donations much more easily than other restoration work, so consider donating to their other projects. 

Published on Nov 05, 2019