Non-Profit Cuts Douglas Firs To Prepare The Ground For Redwood Clones

Dec 18, 2012

Redwoods grow where heavy fog rolls in from the Pacific. From Big Sur, California to Brookings, Oregon. Scientists don’t have a clear picture of how climate change will affect that coastal fog, and the giants that depend on it. But a group called Archangel Ancient Tree Archive has come up with an unusual plan to help the redwoods. It’s planting clones of some of the world’s largest trees. Amelia Templeton of EarthFix reports.

Old growth forest such as this may be affected by climate change.
Credit Photo courtesy National Parks Service

A storm is battering the hills above Port Orford on the Oregon coast. Rain falls sideways and the trees creak. Terry Mock is drenched.

Mock: “We need to walk up the road here and around this bend and get out of the wind. It’s more protected up there.”

Mock has work to do. He’s carrying a pair of redwood trees. They’re slender, about 3 feet tall, their roots tucked in narrow black pots.

Mock: “These are clones of some of the biggest and oldest redwoods on the planet. These are the exact genetic duplicates of the mother trees, so in fact, these are the mother trees.”

Mock works with the Archangel Ancient Tree Archive. The group’s mission is preserving the genes of giant trees. It’s collected cuttings from some of the largest living redwoods. And taken green shoots from stumps of even larger redwoods that were cut down in the 1900s. In a lab in Michigan, they coaxed new roots from the cuttings.

Mock: “What we’re going to test is whether or not the fact that these have the same genetics will enable these trees to withstand environmental stress.”

Stress like climate change.

Mock owns 160 acres near Port Orford. About 50 miles north of where redwoods have historically grown. He believes his land will provide a cool refuge for the redwoods. Archangel was planning on planting 250 of its clones here on this day.

But the rain is making it hard to see. Mock gives up after planting the first two.

Milarch: “We need the healthiest, strongest, toughest trees to help us as a species survive climate change.”

That’s David Milarch, founder of Archangel. Milarch believes, with an almost evangelical fervor, in the genetic superiority of large trees. But scientists aren’t convinced that the very tallest redwoods got that way because of something special in their genes.

Brad St. Clair is a tree geneticist with the research branch of the Forest Service.

St. Clair: “More likely, when you’re looking at an individual, the individual tallest tree or something, it was just luck.”

St. Clair studies genetic variation in trees. He says even if an individual tree does have a gene that helped it grow tall, that gene is not going to be very useful if the problem is climate change.

St. Clair: “I’m more concerned about those populations at the southern end of the range of redwood.”

If Archangel wants to help Redwoods survive climate change, St. Clair says they should focus on the scattered redwood trees that grow in the Santa Clara Mountains near Big Sur. Those redwoods may have genes that could help them survive if it gets hotter. And the trees may need human help moving further north.

St. Clair: “They have genetic variation that is adapted to warmer and perhaps less foggy climates, the exact genetic diversity that I think we’re most interested in conserving.”

I ask Milarch why he’s focused on cloning large trees when geneticist say size just isn’t that important.

Milarch says we don’t know that much about trees yet. And preserving a genetic fingerprint of these giants could be useful in the future.

Milarch: “Why these trees got old, why they got big, we’ll have the exact lineage for thousands of years in that DNA for our geneticist to study.”

Well, not exactly. St. Clair says there’s another problem with cloning very large redwoods. As trees age, their DNA gets old too. It starts to accumulate mutations. A 2,000 year old redwood may have a lot of mutations. If you clone that tree, you copy those mutations too.

St. Clair: “It’s likely that most mutations are not beneficial.”

So the genetic code you get from an old tree has been altered, and is not an exact copy of that tree’s genes when it started growing.

I call several biologists and conservationists to ask about Archangel’s cloned trees. Most of them have nothing to say on the record. On background, this is what I’m told: It’s probably not doing much good. But it’s not doing any harm.

Planting trees is always a good idea. Raising awareness about climate change? That’s good, too.

And that’s how it seemed to me until I saw the site where Mock and Milarch are planting their little redwood clones.

Templeton: "So where are the trees going in?"

Mock: "Right here."

Templeton: "Right on this slope?"

We’re standing above a very steep slope that was recently clear-cut. It’s bare except for the stumps of a few large Douglas firs. Mock says a power company had already clear-cut a right-of way nearby.

Mock: “And we decided that this was the time to go ahead and clear-cut the balance. And use this corner of the property for basically industrial purposes.”

Clear-cuts are a common sight in the Coast Range mountains. This one is small by industrial standards. But it’s jarring to see a clear-cut that was carried out by an environmental group. Most of them oppose this kind of logging. It can leave slopes more prone to landslide and nearby trees more vulnerable to wind.

Templeton: "So how old was this stand?"

VanderVoorden: "Oh, there were trees in here probably about forty to sixty years old, I’d say."

That’s Ken VanderVoorden.

He’s one of the loggers who cleared the slope. He came here to watch the redwood clones get planted. The trees he cut were a young, native forest, Douglas fir and alder.

VanderVoorden: “You know for the purpose we’ve done it for I feel it was a generous trade-off with Mother Nature.”

In a hundred years, a redwood grove may shade this bare slope. Time will tell. But those firs that were logged might have grown up to be champions too. The tallest Douglas Fir tree in the world is about two hours drive from here.

It’s 327 feet. That’s taller than many redwoods.

Copyright 2012 Northwest Public Radio