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Stateside Podcast: Ancient trees are flourishing in northern Michigan

 The main greenhouse at the Archangel Ancient Tree Archive.
April Baer
The main greenhouse at the Archangel Ancient Tree Archive.

It’s the dead of winter in Copemish – a village of about 200 people – where hundreds of tiny botanical wonders are taking root: sapling-sized clones of ancient trees.

Father-son duo David and Jared Milarch run the nonprofit Archangel Ancient Tree Archive. The project sprouted from the family’s multi-generational nursery business as a way to propagate and preserve trees threatened by climate change and habitat loss. The Milarchs take cuttings from the biggest, oldest, strongest tree species around the world, and nurture them until they’re old enough to be planted.

Milarch_baer_Sequoia room 2_edited.jpg
April Baer
Archangel Ancient Tree Archive has cloned trees from 3 to 4 thousand year old giant sequoias. David Milarch says experts didn't believe they could do it.

It’s a long game, but one that the Milarchs and their team have proved can work.

“[S]ince we started down the field 12 years ago of trying to clone coast redwoods and giant sequoias that are thousands of years old, every expert in the world came forward and said, ‘You’ll never, ever get those. The oldest giant sequoia ever cloned was 80 years old. You will fail.’ Well, that whole building over there is filled with three to four thousand year old giant sequoias,” David Milarch told Stateside host April Baer on a trip up to Copemish. “We’re very successful at that, and they’re being planted in eight countries.”

David’s first interest in preserving trees actually came decades earlier. Shortly after purchasing his father’s tree business, his well-established crop started to die. He later learned that airborne toxins like mercury, dioxin, and sulfur dioxide emitted from coal plants weakened the trees. This emerging research – coupled with the growing climate crisis – fueled his desire for preservation.

[The Morton Arboretum] did a study of, why are old growth forest genetics important. Because they have an intact memory in their DNA,” David explained. “Only old growth forests have that intact memory for thousands of years of times that they survived fire, the times that they’ve gone through great drought…Now that it’s getting hotter and drier all over the world, they can go back into their genetic memory, pull that forward to help make them through.”

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April Baer
Tissue cultures at the Archangel Ancient Tree Archive.

David said he couldn’t have foreseen the level of climate change and deforestation when he began the project. But at a time when it’s easy to lament the critical junctures we missed for slowing climate change, the Milarchs maintain a firm, fundamental belief in their work.

“We’re working for the world’s grandchildren,” David said. “That’s what keeps us going.”

Hear more from the Milarchs and their northern Michigan nursery on this episode of Stateside.

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  • David Milarch, co-founder of Archangel Ancient Tree Archive
  • Jared Milarch, co-founder and executive director of Archangel Ancient Tree Archive

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Ellie Katz joined the Stateside team as an intern in September 2022.
April Van Buren
April Van Buren is a producer for Stateside. She produces interviews for air as well as web and social media content for the show.