Champion Trees and Urban Forests

Personal epiphanies, urban forests, and a plan to save the planet

David Milarch, founder, Archangel Ancient Tree Archive, holding a clone of a giant sequoia. [Image: Brian Confer, courtesy of Studio b Photography]

“Planting trees may be the single most important ecotechnology that we have to put the broken pieces of our planet back together.” This is the large premise and implicit challenge that animates The Man Who Planted Trees. Written by the science journalist Jim Robbins, and subtitled “Lost Groves, Champion Trees, and an Urgent Plan to Save the Planet,” the book is at once a well-crafted primer on global climate change, a compendium of tree-related science, and a fascinating, slyly subversive character study of one man determined to save the world.

The science that Robbins recapitulates is at once familiar and frightening. Trees and forests, the author reminds us, “hold the natural world together.” He describes our reliance in elegant detail:

Trees are responsible for half the photosynthesis on land. … 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 pollutants in their tissue; create homes and building materials; offer shade; provide medicine; and produce a wide variety of nuts and fruits. They sustain all manner of wildlife, birds, and insects with an array of food and shelter. 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.

But despite our profound dependence upon trees, we have witnessed in recent centuries the dramatic loss of much of the earth’s primal forest. The World Resources Institute estimates that nearly 80 percent of the old-growth forest on the planet is now gone (in the contiguous Unites States that figure jumps to more than 90 percent). Much of the loss is due to the march of civilization; we have clear-cut ancient trees to make way for our settlements. But chainsaws and bulldozers and harvesters are not the only threats. Or even the most powerful: forests are now weakening or dying at alarming rates due to natural processes that are intensifying as a result of our warming planet.

The major threat, Robbins points out, can be traced to relatively recent, climate change-driven events including prolonged infestations by pests whose destructive actions are no longer curtailed by long cold winters; brutal megadroughts; and intense storms. Robbins describes a powerful storm that in 2005 ravaged the Amazon Basin — which had been plagued by drought — and killed “a whopping half a billion trees in forty-eight hours.” As a result, the region, which had been a natural carbon sink, is now a source of atmospheric carbon. Robbins emphasizes that the Amazon is just one of many forest landscapes in crisis, and that the overall effect is a substantial reduction in the protective tree canopy across the planet. What will be the ultimate impact of this reduction “as the planet journeys into a possibly disastrous century of soaring temperatures”? This is the fundamental question Robbins sets out to answer. If ultimately the book poses more questions than it presents conclusions, that is inevitable for, as Robbins puts it: “We are beyond known limits, and traveling farther beyond them every day.”

Top: Clear-cut forest, near Eugene, Oregon, March 2011. [Image by Calibas, via Wikimedia Commons] Bottom: Fires and deforestation, Amazon rainforest, Rondonia, Brazil. [Image from NASA Earth Observatory, via Wikimedia Commons]

Tree Champion

Robbins’s hero — the man who planted trees — is neither an ecologist nor environmentalist nor conventional nature-lover. David Milarch is a larger-than-life character who’d be at home in Faulkner or Steinbeck. He is a reformed hard-living, serious-drinking, biker-gang member who is also a third-generation shade-tree farmer in Copemish, Michigan (pop. 194), who in 1996 founded the Champion Tree Project.

The concept is straightforward: to collect, archive, clone and propagate the genetics of the world’s “champion” trees — those which have, notes Robbins, “the highest combined score of three measurements: height, crown size, and diameter at breast height” — and in so doing to produce a global super-forest capable of ameliorating the destructive effects of rapid climate change. The idea of genetically reproducing plants is not new, of course. For centuries, farmers and gardeners have been cloning plants through uncomplicated and inexpensive processes like grafting and taking cuttings; these processes are the basis of the multibillion-dollar nursery industry. What has been central to Milarch’s efforts is the focus on old-growth specimens; he sees comparatively little value in what we might call run-of-the-mill trees. “When we look at the trees around us,” he explains to Robbins, “we’re looking at the runts, the leftovers.” As Robbins describes the Champion Tree Project:

A case can be made that the DNA of old-growth trees contains a library of knowledge vital to the survival of the species, and the older the tree and the more traumas it has survived, the bigger the library. The tree has gone to school on pests, climate swings, and diseases, and if those hardships don’t kill it, as the saying goes, they make it stronger, and it can pass the benefits of its experience on to its cloned offspring.

This Darwinian logic is not without critics. Some scientists contend that site-specific conditions may ultimately determine a tree’s longevity more so than its DNA. But at this point there is not adequate evidence for either case, and Robbins argues, persuasively, in favor of pre-emptive and prudent action. What if two decades from now scientists prove that tree genetics is crucial to withstanding climate change, but by then the champion trees are all gone?

Left: Redwood, Muir Woods, California, December 2006. [Photograph by Fred Hsu, via Wikimedia Commons]. Right: Redwood tree rings. [Photo via California Academy of Sciences]

The origin and evolution of the Champion Tree Project itself are extraordinary. The idea came to Milarch in a vision on a terrible night in the early ’90s when he quit drinking cold-turkey and almost died; at which point Milarch remembers that he passed through a “tunnel of white light” and was visited by “a large male angel with a voice like thunder.” As his liver and kidneys failed and he hovered near death, the angel told him that it was not yet his time to die, that he had “work to do” on earth. Whatever the cause, Milarch began to recover, and a few weeks later the archangel’s mysterious declaration was clarified when several of what Milarch calls “light beings” appeared and told him “the big trees are dying” and then, through his agency, produced a ten-page outline of what would become the Champion Tree Project.

Robbins was understandably skeptical at first. But following extensive research into near-death experiences and nature-based supernatural phenomena, he came to believe the fantastical tale, along with Milarch’s assertion that his newfound enlightenment has guided him ever since. The author’s acceptance of the story is critical to the book’s integrity, but, as Robbins makes clear, the logic behind the tree project — which has since been renamed the Archangel Ancient Tree Archive, and is now run by Milarch’s son Jared — would still be sound even if Milarch’s state of mind were not. On the whole, David Milarch emerges from these pages as certifiably sane, albeit quixotic, with a potent combination of naiveté and stubbornness that makes him hard to dislike or ignore.

Milarch’s journey is the emotional center of The Man Who Planted Trees, but Robbins’s larger narrative encompasses the complicated and paradoxical relationship of humankind and trees. We understand (though incompletely) the vital ecological importance of trees and forests and appreciate their scenic beauty; yet we also transform them into commodities. And while the market value is easy to quantify (the United Nations Environment Programme estimates the global value of traded forest products as between $150 and $200 billion), it is much more difficult to assess and quantify, in systemic terms, the ecological and environmental value of trees.

We can see this paradoxical relationship at work in the recent history of the redwood forests of California. Redwoods, or Sequoias, usually live 500 to 1,000 years, sometimes even longer, and by the mid-19th century there were more than two million acres of redwood forest along the northern California coast. Because of their immense size — redwoods are the largest and tallest trees on earth, typically over 375 feet tall, with trunk diameters of 20 feet or more — the trees were rarely harvested. This began to change in 1878, when the U.S Congress passed the Timber and Stone Act, which allowed private companies to buy and manage federally owned land deemed “unfit for farming” (i.e., timberland) for $2.50 an acre; that this was a paltry figure even back then — when the going rate for timber per acre was $1,300 – simply underlines the long cultural tendency to devalue trees. “In 1854 there were just nine sawmills on California’s North Coast,” says Robbins, “toward the end of the century there were four hundred.”

Top: John Muir at Mirror Lake, Yosemite National Park, ca. 1902. [Photograph via Library of Congress] Bottom: Redwood logging, Sonoma County, California, ca. 1870, stereoscopic views. [Photographs by T.L. Rea; photography collection of New York Public Library]

It was in this volatile era that the American environmental conservation movement emerged and gained ground in both the political sphere and public consciousness. With such diverse leaders as the naturalist John Muir, the diplomat George Perkins Marsh and the future president Theodore Roosevelt, the early conservationists lobbied to preserve large expanses of wilderness in Western states that were becoming populous. They won significant battles — most notably the designation of early national parks like Yellowstone, Yosemite and Glacier, and, in 1916, the creation of the National Park Service — but they lost many more to the unstoppable forces of westward-moving settlement and urban development. By the time the Scottish-born Muir arrived in California, in 1868, the lumber industry was already growing and the redwood forests dwindling. In 1901 he wrote: “God has cared for these trees, saved them from drought, disease, avalanches, and a thousand tempests and floods. But he cannot save them from fools — only Uncle Sam can do that.” By now it’s clear that more often than not the fools have had their way; today only five percent, or 106,000 acres, of the original two million remain. And only about 82 percent of that — including the 550 acres of Muir Woods National Monument — is federally protected.

Muir’s efforts had precedents. Tree preservation movements span the globe, and the very act of “tree hugging” originated in Jodhpur, India, where, in 1730, foresters slaughtered more than 300 Hindus as they clung protectively — in vain — to the trunks of flowering khejri trees being felled to build the palace of a maharajah. One of the most effective campaigns of recent decades is the Green Belt Movement, started by the Kenyan activist Wangari Maathai in 1977 to combat the deforestation of East Africa. Maathai, then a professor of veterinary anatomy at University College of Nairobi, organized Kenyan women to plant seedlings and trees on a large scale, thus empowering them both to generate household income and restore natural resources. To date the Green Belt Movement has planted over 12 million trees in the region and in 2004 Maathai was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize (she died in 2011). The U.N. Environment Programme credits her work as the inspiration for the Billion Tree Campaign, which since its founding in 2006 has planted and registered more than 12 billion trees worldwide.

Tree nursery in Kenya, planted by the Green Belt Movement. [Photo © Green Belt Movement]

The United States has its tree-planting heroes too. Most famously there is the Massachusetts-born John Chapman, a.k.a., Johnny Appleseed, who in the first decades of the 19th century seeded apple orchards throughout the East and Midwest. Later came Julius Sterling Morton, who in 1872 organized the very first Arbor Day in Nebraska City; for the New England-born, Michigan-educated Morton, Arbor Day was a natural outgrowth of his self-declared “battle against treeless prairies.” So successful was the first celebration — more than one million trees were planted throughout the state of Nebraska — that the festivities became an annual event; in 1970 — which saw not only the first Earth Day but also the establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency — Arbor Day was officially declared a national holiday. (It’s observed in several dozen countries as well.) Today the Arbor Day Foundation is extending Morton’s legacy through programs such as Tree City USA and Tree Campus USA, which reward municipalities and schools that maintain and expand their tree canopies.

City Trees

“Restoration forestry should be at the top of the environmental agenda in urban and suburban areas,” writes Jim Robbins, and these days the most significant American tree-planting campaigns are indeed happening in major cities. From Million Trees NYC, Grow Boston Greener and Tree Philly to Million Trees L.A., Million Trees + Houston and Million Trees Miami, cities across the continent are committing to urban greenery as part of larger sustainability initiatives. Planting trees is a fairly noncontroversial proposition — always depending, of course, upon how the funding is structured, and who is paying for the planting. Urbanites readily appreciate the value of trees even if they don’t know or care much about factors like the heat island effect. In 2006, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa pitched his plan to the citizens of Los Angeles by claiming that Million Trees L.A. “will provide shade and save on energy costs, clean the air and help reduce … greenhouse gases … capture polluted urban runoff, improve water quality, and add beauty to our neighborhoods.” To this list Robbins would add various benefits from the psychological to financial; the urban forest, he writes, “acts as a natural mood elevator that reduces anxiety and depression, improves property values, mitigates noise, provides wildlife habitat, recreation, and medicines, and grows fruits, nuts and other nutritious foods.”

But if the tree planting campaigns were easy to pitch, they have proven harder to implement. In the past seven years, Million Trees L.A., which is funded not by city revenue but by grants, has managed to plant slightly more than 400,000 trees; an editorial in The Los Angeles Times characterizes the project as a qualified success, and argues that it should now focus less on the public-relations appeal of seven-digit numbers and more on mundane issues like maintenance: “The Million Trees L.A. program is now part of city government, so it will survive beyond Villaraigosa’s tenure. That’s good. It should continue, but with less emphasis on some alpine-high number and more on raising awareness about what an owner must do to maintain a tree.” Boston, too, has struggled to match reality with rhetoric. Grow Boston Greener, launched in 2007 with the goal of 100,000 new trees by 2020, has made only fitful progress; a Boston Globe correspondent reported that to date the city has planted only a small percentage of the target (estimates vary from 4,000 trees to more than 20,000), due to funding shortfalls and also to what Antonio Pollak, the city’s Parks and Recreation commissioner, conceded was a “tough environment” in which urban trees are assaulted by pollution, weather, disease, even reckless drivers.

Top left: Million Trees Miami website. [Via] Top right: Million Trees L.A. [Via Million Trees L.A. Facebook photostream] Bottom left: Trees ready for planting by Tree Philly, fall 2013. [Via Tree Philly] Bottom right: Tree planted by Million Trees NYC. [Via Million Trees NYC]

One hundred thousand trees, one million trees: the targets might seem arbitrary, but they are usually grounded in such factors as city size and ecology. For the compact city of Boston, the smaller number will achieve a substantial increase in tree canopy. For Los Angeles, the larger figure reflects both the physical expanse of the metropolis as well as the fact that its existing green canopy was sparse. Joan Blaustein, director of Urban Forestry and Ecosystem Management in Philadelphia, points out that the U.S. Forest Service recommends that tree campaigns aim to achieve a canopy of at least 30 percent of urban area, which is the goal now adopted by Tree Philly.

Tree Philly was launched in 2012, as part of an intensive green infrastructure campaign promoted by Mayor Michael Nutter, and already the city is learning from the challenges faced in other cities. Mark Focht, a deputy commissioner of Parks and Recreation, describes the 30 percent goal as “really, really ambitious,” given that the current canopy is about 20 percent overall, and, in some neighborhoods, less than one percent; to reach the goal the city would need to plant 600,000 to 700,000 trees in the next 20 years. Given the political realities — which include mayoral term limits as well as inadequate public acreage available for planting — the city has downplayed the larger numbers and set the goal of planting 300,000 trees by 2015 — just as Nutter will be concluding his final term. And city leaders underscore the grass-roots aspect: as Blaustein says, “We made the determination early on that this was going to be a citizens’ campaign … that we could not reach this goal without the participation of every citizen in Philadelphia.” In fact, from the start the city understood that it could not go it alone; it established incentive programs for both the residential and commercial communities, and successfully sought corporate sponsorships. And — a tacit concession to the current culture of privatization — Tree Philly has distanced itself from its public-sector roots; the program has its own branding, Focht explains, so that “it won’t feel like a government program.” 1

The Philadelphia tree-planting community extends to the non-profit sector as well. For the past 20 years, Tree Tenders, a program run by the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society, has been offering training in “tree biology, identification, planting, proper care and working within your community.” There are similar organizations in many U.S. cities, including Los Angeles, where a generation ago the environmental non-profit Tree People sponsored the planting of one million trees in anticipation of the 1984 Summer Olympics. Today the group remains active, and, like Tree Tenders, its agenda has broadened. “We are focused not simply on getting trees into the ground,” explains Caryn Bosson, the group’s communications director. “Our work is about connecting people with trees … with the understanding that each of us is a manager of the ecosystem around us, whether in our home landscapes, our neighborhoods, or beyond.” 2

Landscape architect Mia Lehrer, who has served on the board of Tree People, would like to see Los Angeles go further: to focus not only on planting trees but also on cultivating forestlands. “There is no urban forest plan for the city,” says Lehrer. “Angelenos really do care about trees, and support the concept of the urban forest. But so far there is more talk than action.” Lehrer notes that most transportation projects in the city feature landscaping — usually linear plantings of street trees — but that these are not well connected in ways that would make them function as an urban system. A more effective strategy, Lehrer argues, would be to “plant trees in residential neighborhood, where you can achieve much greater density of tree coverage,” and, in turn, provide greater environmental and aesthetic benefits.

Urban Forest Los Angeles, before and after, a proposal by Mia Lehrer + Associates. [Images courtesy of Urban Forest Los Angeles]

Lehrer has responded proactively to the lack of city action. While working on the landscape design for the new federal courthouse in downtown Los Angeles, she was approached by the General Services Administration, which sought ideas for a large parcel near the site that will remain vacant for the next several years. (The courthouse project has just begun construction.) The GSA wanted, she recalls, “something interesting” that would attract community support and promote environmental awareness. Lehrer’s response was to propose an experimental tree farm that would not only provide a temporary landscape but also function as a test site for the acclimatization of trees into tough urban environments. Too often, Lehrer argues, tree species are selected because they are native to a region. 3 This approach has advantages, but as Lehrer says, “the poor natives are not always prepared to survive the heat island.” Thus Lehrer’s proposal — which the GSA is now considering — is to plant 500 trees of various sizes and species in raised boxes, and then over time evaluate their growth rates and overall hardiness. The experiment will continue until the site is developed, at which point the GSA will replant the trees in city parks or on federal lands. 4

Endurance is, in fact, the single greatest challenge of urban tree-planting programs. In an influential 1992 article in American Forests, arborists Bob Skiera and Gary Moll reported that city street trees live, on average, only about 13 years. 5 But you don’t have to be an arborist to understand the torturous tests that cities pose to trees. Just walk down a typical street and observe the trash-filled planting beds, the gnarled and mangled trunks, the undernourished leaves. Happily, there is increasing evidence that conditions are improving. According to Mark Focht, Philadelphia park officials understands the long-term benefits of specifying — and funding — the larger and deeper planting pits, and the higher quality soil, that enable trees to flourish. In Los Angeles, the city claims that the mortality rate of the Million Trees L.A. program is only five percent, which is half the national figure. Landscape architect Gary Hilderbrand, a principal in the Boston-area firm Reed Hilderbrand, has learned to make the case to his clients that they need to invest in what will remain unseen: in the below-ground conditions of streetscapes and urban plazas. In this way, he says, they will provide “life support” for the above-ground landscape; for city trees to survive, he argues, you need “reciprocity between what’s above, spatially, and what’s below, structurally, chemically, biologically and physically.” 6 One of Reed Hilderbrand’s recent projects, in downtown Boston, has become a model for innovative and effective urban tree-planting. For the Central Wharf Plaza — a tight, complex site with numerous underground utilities — the firm designed a perforated and suspended slab that supports the plaza and its dry-laid paving while also accommodating the compacted, sand-based soil that filters rainwater and carries oxygen to the tree roots.

Today city tree-planting programs across the country are struggling to stretch limited public budgets and contribute to the beauty, health and sustainability of the American urban landscape. Meanwhile the Archangel Ancient Tree Archive continues its supernaturally inspired, earthbound mission to propagate champion trees. Earlier this year, on Earth Day, the organization planted 18-inch-tall clones of coastal Sequoias — “genetic duplicates of three giants that were cut down in northern California more than a century ago,” according to the Associated Press — in California and Oregon as well as Australia, Canada, Germany, Great Britain, Ireland and New Zealand.

A small contribution, perhaps. But as Jim Robbins puts it, in The Man Who Planted Trees: “If one man and his family living in the middle of nowhere, with no financial resources, no political connections, no formal education, with little but a vision of making the world a healthier, safer place for his grandchildren and their grandchildren, can bring us closer to a more hopeful and viable future, imagine what we all can do.”

  1. Joan Blaustein and Mark Focht, conversations with the author, spring 2013.
  2. Caryn Bosson, conversation with the author, spring 2013.
  3. One of the resolutions of the Los Angeles Urban Forestry Division is to “contribute to and preserve the integrity of the native remnant forest both within and adjacent to the public right-of-way.” In L.A., the predominant native species include live oak, black walnut and western sycamore.
  4. Mia Lehrer, conversation with author, spring 2013.
  5. Bob Skiera and Gary Moll, “The sad state of city trees,” American Forests (March/April 1992), 61–64.
  6. Gary Hilderbrand, conversation with the author, spring 2013.
Mark Hough, “Champion Trees and Urban Forests,” Places Journal, September 2013. Accessed 29 Sep 2023.

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