The Man Who Planted Trees: Lost Groves, Champion Trees, and an Urgent Plan to Save the Planet

It’s amazing for one layman to come up with the idea of saving champion trees as a meaningful way to address the issues of biodiversity and climate change. This could be a grass roots solution to a global problem. A few million people selecting and planting the right trees for the right places could really make a difference.

 Dr. Rama Nemani, NASA Earth Scientist

By Jim Robbins

“A fool sees not the same tree that a wise man sees.”  William Blake

Preface

In 1993 my wife, Chere, and I bought fifteen acres of land on the outskirts of Helena, Montana. The property was tangled with a dense ponderosa pine forest so thick it’s called dog-hair, and some of the stubborn old trees had lived well there for centuries, in rocky terrain, marginal soil, and cold temperatures.  We installed a Finnish wood stove called a Tulikivi, a mammoth dark gray soapstone box about six feet tall, in the middle of the living room of our new house.  Tulikivis are highly efficient because the soft, dense stone mass around the firebox soaks up heat from a roaring fire and holds the warmth for 24 hours. Heat from the stone is radiant, softer and more pleasant than the heat from a burning fire. It’s also clean – wood stove pollution comes from damping down a fire so that it burns slowly, which gives off a dense cloud of smoke.  This stove burns hot.

Our forest and stove were the perfect marriage — we planned to slowly thin the trees and feed the fire with what we cut. We had more than enough wood, I figured, to last not only my lifetime, but my children’s and grandchildren’s.  We were fire-proofing our home as well, reducing the fuel in the woods around us should a wildfire blow up.  Thinning would help open the dense forest for the wildlife that occasionally appeared. A moose ran through the yard one day, a black bear turned over the barbecue, and a bobcat sauntered by. The eerie ululating howls of coyotes echoed at night and sent chills down my dog’s neck, and she wailed from her bed in the front hall.

Jim Robbins provides some scale to the enormity of the giant redwoods. Photo by Peter Kupfer.

One day in 2003, hiking through the woods to town, I saw my first fader. A fader is a tree that has been attacked and killed by insects, and slowly fades from green to a reddish brown. In this case the perpetrator was the mountain pine beetle, a small dark bug that burrows beneath the bark and lays its eggs. Larvae hatch and eat the phloem, a thin, moist membrane under the bark that is a life-support system for the tree. As the grubs gobble their way in a circle around the trunk, they cut the crown of the tree off from its source of water and from nutrients in the soil; the life in the tree ebbs, and it fades from alive to dead, a slow death.   Alarmed at the outbreak, I quickly chain-sawed down the red tree and stripped off the bark to expose the bugs to the cold. But I noticed several other large trees that, while still green, had been infected. Having finished this one off, the bugs had flown to other nearby trees to begin again.

The appearance and efflorescence of these bugs paralleled a series of warmer winters the West has experienced in the last few decades. In the 1970s and 1980s, winter usually meant two or three weeks or more of temperatures 20, 30, or 40 degrees Fahrenheit below zero. Since the 1980s the temperature has only dipped into 30 below territory a handful of times and never for a long period, and it has never fallen anywhere near the record of 70 below set in 1954.  The warmer wintertime minimum temperatures make a huge difference to the bugs. The larvae are well adapted and manufacture their own supply of glycol – the same chemical found in automobile anti-freeze — as they head into winter. They easily survive temperatures of 20 and 30 below.

Bark beetles such as the mountain pine beetle are highly evolved and ruthlessly efficient – the beetle’s Latin name, dendroctonus, means tree killer.  They carry a blue fungus from tree to tree in pouches under their legs, a super-rich food source that they plant in the host tree. As it grows they feed it to their young. After the larvae feast, they turn into adults, each the size of a letter on this page, and hatch from one tree by the thousands.   Swarming to a nearby uninfected tree, they tunnel through the bark, and once ensconced, they send out a chemical mist called a pheromone, a scented request for reinforcements. They need to overwhelm the tree quickly to kill it. When their numbers are large enough, they send out a follow-up pheromone message that says the tree is full. Each infected tree creates enough new bugs to infect five to eight other trees.

Jake Milarch starts a climb. Photo by Peter Kupfer

The tell-tale signs of an infected tree are ivory-colored, nickel-sized plugs that look like candle wax plastered on the trunks, which mean the tree is pumping out resin to try to drown a drilling bug. Sometimes a tree wins by entombing a beetle; far more often these days, the tree loses to the mob assault. The stress caused by warmer temperatures and drought makes it harder for the trees to muster enough resin to resist attacks.

A year after I saw the first fader, a dozen trees in our backyard forest were dead.  Then things went exponential. A dozen dead trees turned to thirty, which turned to a hundred and fifty, dying far faster than I could cut them down and turn them into firewood. Finally, five years after the first infected tree, all of our trees were dead. It’s eerie when the tree reaper comes to claim your forest and renders the once living world around you stone dead.  We threw in the towel and hired loggers to come in and cut our trees down.

Enormous machinery rumbled into our woods on tank treads. A piece of equipment called an “excadozer” grabbed a tree, cut it off at the base, and stripped the branches in less than a minute. I watched trees falling around the house, heard the angry hornet whine of chainsaws, and looked below to see our forest piled up like Lincoln logs ready to be turned into paste.  The tang of pine scent hung thickly in the air.

It’s eerie when the tree reaper comes to claim your forest and renders the once living world around you stone dead. When the forest is gone and the sky opens up, it’s disorienting, as if someone has removed a wall of your house. Broken branches, smashed limbs, and slivered stumps were all that was left; tank tread marks scarred the exposed forest floor. “It’s like open-heart surgery,” said my “personal logger,” Levi. “You don’t want to watch while it’s going on, but in the end it’s a good thing.”

The loggers hauled the logs off on trucks and loaded them on a freight train headed for Missoula, Montana, where they were sold to a paper plant, which chipped them and turned them into an oatmeal-like slurry to become cardboard boxes. It cost us about a thousand dollars an acre to cut and ship out our dead trees. They have little value as lumber because of the blue stain from the fungus the beetles inject. And there are so many dead trees in Montana these days it’s a buyer’s market.  The landscape looks post-apocalyptic in many places.

The once-forested hill behind our house is now a meadow.  A perch on a grassy hill-top a short hike from my house reveals an entire mountain valley draped with trees, nearly all of which are dead and dying.  All around Helena, in fact, the forests are mostly dead, a jumble of rust-red dead trees.

Trees and forests come and go all the time. Like fire, beetles are agents of the natural cycle of life and death; they break down trees so their nutrients can be absorbed into the soil and used by the next generation of trees. But the boundaries between what is natural and unnatural have broken down — and this outbreak and others in the West appear to be unnatural. Climate change, experts say, is partly a human artifact and has pushed the bugs into a much larger destructive role than they might otherwise play. Freed from their usual boundary of cold temperatures, they have broadened their range and claimed more territory, going higher in altitude and pushing further north than ever. They used to hatch from their tree and fly to a new host for two weeks in July; now they fly all summer and part of the fall. They used to only attack trees over five inches in diameter; now they are eating trees as big around as my thumb. Although the growing season for forests is two weeks or more longer than it used to be, the amount of precipitation is the same, and so the trees must go longer with the same amount of water, which has stressed them and reduced their defenses.

As I researched and wrote stories for the New York Times and other publications about this massive change in the woods, it dawned on me – I mean really dawned on me – that America’s cordillera, the mountains that extend from Alaska to Northern New Mexico, and that include my patch of forest, were ground zero for the largest die-off of forests in recorded history.  “A continental-scale phenomenon,” said one shocked scientist. Suddenly climate change hit home.

Jake Milarch halfway up a tree. Photo by Peter Kupfer

Imagine a world without trees.

It was no longer an abstract question for me. The forests on my property, in the valley where I live, in the region, and in much of the state are dying. The speed and thoroughness of the die-off is stunning.

Take a minute and imagine if every tree around your home, your city, your state were to wither and die. What would the world be like?  And it promises to become much worse if even the most conservative climate predictions come to pass. Few people are thinking about the future of forests and trees.

Credit where credit is due. This book began a decade ago, with vital questions that I never heard asked until they were posed by a third-generation shade tree farmer who claimed he had died and gone to heaven, and then returned. He was worried about the future of the global forest and told me that the trees that make up most of the world’s forests are the genetic runts – the scraps left after the last few centuries of orgiastic clear-cutting, which selected out the biggest, straightest, and healthiest trees. There is a strong, urgent case to be made that this is true, that we are witnessing a kind of evolution in reverse, and that genetically our forests are a shadow of what they once were and may not be strong enough to survive on a rapidly warming planet.

For a long time I doubted whether this farmer, a recovering alcoholic, former competitive arm wrestler and street brawler, who claimed a fantastic ride out of his body and back, really knew what was going on with the world’s trees. And then forests in my backyard and state and region and continent started dying; not just a few trees, but trees by the millions. They are still dying.  His ideas seem better every day.

Aldo Leopold wrote that “to keep every cog and wheel is the first precaution of intelligent tinkering.”  It’s unimpeachable common sense that we have ignored. When it comes to our ancient forests we have nearly wiped them out – more than 90 percent of America’s old-growth forest is gone and is still being cut, and some 80 percent of the world’s has vanished. Yet we have only begun – only begun — to understand the ecological role these forests play or what secrets might be locked away in their genes.

Forests hold the natural world together. They have cradled the existence of our species since we first appeared–trees and forests are high-functioning members of ecological society, irreplaceable players at the apex of the complex ecological web around us. They are ecosystem engineers that create the conditions for other forms of life to exist, on every level. As I worked on this book the Gulf oil spill occurred, and was widely covered as the black tarry substance fouled beaches and killed wildlife. The loss of our trees and forests, our ecological infrastructure, isn’t nearly as dramatic; it’s a quiet crisis. But the impacts are far greater.

This book is about several things. It is first and foremost about David Milarch, the aforementioned tree farmer and an interesting guy if there ever was one. It is about the long-time human love affair with trees and forests, a love affair that has ebbed and flowed, but has been ongoing since the dawn of humans, since our ancestors first climbed into them to escape predators.  It is a book about the science of trees and of forests, and about the unappreciated roles they play in sustaining life on the planet.

David Milarch poses beside a Redwood. Photo by Peter Kupfer.

Trees are responsible for half the photosynthesis on land, taking in the energy from sunlight and transforming it to leaves, so that energy is usable by insects and mammals and birds. They are highly evolved water management specialists; a forest is a soft carpet on the landscape that allows a downpour to reach the ground gently, rather than in a torrent, so that it can be absorbed, rather than run off, and can recharge ground water. Trees feed oxygen and minerals into the ocean, create rain, render mercury, nitrates, and other toxic wastes in the soil harmless, gather and neutralize sulfur dioxide, ozone, carbon dioxide, and other harmful air pollutants in their tissue, create homes and building materials, offer shade, provide medicine, and produce a wide variety of nuts and fruit. They sustain all manner of wildlife, birds, and insects with an array of food and shelter as well. They are the planet’s heat shield, slowing the evaporation of water and cooling the Earth. They generate vast clouds of chemicals that are vital to myriad aspects of the earth’s ecosystems, and likely vital to our health and well-being. They are natural reservoirs — as much as a hundred gallons of water can be stored in the crown of a large tree.  The water they release is part of a largely unrecognized water cycle.

Even viewed conservatively, trees are worth far more than they cost to plant and maintain. The U.S. Forest Service’s Center for Urban Forest Research found a ten-degree difference between the cool of a shaded park in Tucson and the open Sonoran desert. A tree planted in the right place, the center estimates, reduces the demand for air conditioning and can save 100 kilowatt hours in annual electrical use, about two to eight percent of total use. Strategically planted trees can also shelter homes from wind, and in cold weather they can reduce heating fuel costs by 10 to 12 percent.  A million strategically planted trees, the center figures, can save $10 million in energy costs. And trees increase property values, as much as one percent for each mature tree. These savings are offset, somewhat, by the cost of planting and maintaining trees, but on balance, if we had to pay for the services that trees provide, we couldn’t afford them. Because trees offer them in silence, and for free, we take them for granted.

This book also delves into the long history of the sacred aspects of trees, a worship that has been around for as long as people have.  There is a view among many to this day that trees were a gift from the creator, placed here to provide for our basic food and shelter needs.  Across cultures and across time they have been revered as sacred, a living antenna of sorts conducting divine energies. “The groves were God’s first temples,” wrote William Cullen Bryant in his 1824 poem “A Forest Hymn.”

Science has not, as we like to think, conquered every realm. And one of the places it has a great deal of work to do is with the trees. What an irony that these living beings whose shade we sit in, whose fruit we eat, whose limbs we climb, whose roots we water, whom most of us rarely give second thought to, are so poorly understood.  We need to come, as soon as possible, to a profound understanding and deep appreciation for trees and forests and the vital roles that they play, for they are one of our best allies in the uncertain future that is unfolding.

Chapter One – Champion Tree

…My journey into the world of trees started in 2001, when I read an article about an organization called the Champion Tree Project. At the time, the group’s goal was to clone the champion of each of the 826 species of trees in the United States, make hundreds or thousands of copies, and plant the offspring in “living archival libraries” around the country to preserve the trees’ DNA. A champion is a tree that has the highest combined score of three measurements – height, crown size, and diameter at breast height. The project’s co-founder, David Milarch, a shade tree nurseryman from Copemish, Michigan, a village near Traverse City, said he eventually hoped to both sell and give away the baby trees cloned from the giants. “Clones,” in this case, are human-assisted copies of trees made by taking cuttings of a tree and growing them—an old and widely-used horticultural technique for growing plants. Unlike a seedling, which may have only 50 percent of the genetics of a parent, a clone of a tree is a hundred percent genetic duplicate of a parent…

From the book THE MAN WHO PLANTED TRESS by Jim Robbins, published by Spiegel & Grau, an imprint of Random House Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc. Reprinted with Permission. Copyright © 2012 by Jim Robbins

 

Climbing the Champion Bald Cypress in Florida.

Further Reference: Champion Tree Projects & Sustainable Land Development

Biodiversity is the Living Foundation for Sustainable Development

Building a Sustainable Community Forest

Traverse City Record-Eagle – News Story — www.record-eagle.com

Floridian: A treasury of champions

A Tree Project Helps the Genes of Champions Live On

USATODAY.com – Quest begins to restore ‘champion’ trees by cloning

Group to Clone “Champion” Trees of Lewis and Clark

In Search Of Giants – Orlando Sentinel

Classic tree to branch out here – Chicago Tribune

Building a Sustainable Urban Forest

DefenseLINK News: Pentagon Ash Trees: Living Legacies For 9-11 …

Living on Earth: Champion Trees

Ecology for a Crowded Planet

Scientists trying to clone tree nearly 5000 years old

Giant gene pattern

washingtonpost.com: Taking Chips Off the Oldest Blocks

Seeds Of The Future – Sun Sentinel

Exploring Urban Renewal Through Sustainable Urban Forestry …

Group Prepares ‘Champion’ Tree Clones To Replenish Watersheds

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