Michigan Family Clones Giant Trees

Hometown Heroes, People
on September 9, 2001

In 1996, Jared Milarch scrambled up the trunk of a large white ash tree, his tennis shoes digging into the bark as he wielded his grandpa’s pole pruner to clip buds from the 95-foot-tall giant in Elk Rapids, Mich.

Below, his father, David Milarch, stood proudly—ready to support not only his son’s idea to clone the 450-year-old tree, but his own commitment to preserve and restore the planet’s dwindling forests.

As third- and fourth-generation nurserymen in Copemish, Mich., (pop. 232) the Milarches know how important it is to assure that future generations grow up surrounded by stands of healthy trees. Besides beauty, a tree with an 18-inch diameter trunk produces enough oxygen to support a family of four for a year.

Cloning the largest—and often oldest—trees seemed like a great idea to then 16-year-old Jared, who figured if a tree could survive hundreds, sometimes even thousands, of years of environmental and climatic changes, they must be genetically superior.

“It’s humbling,” Jared says. “Anything that’s 500 years old has a lot of history and knowledge stored in it.”

Buds clipped from the white ash and three other trees—recognized as “champions” because they are the largest measured of their species—were sent to J. Frank Schmidt Nursery Co. in Boring, Ore. In just five months, the tiny cuttings grew into 6- to 9-foot saplings, and Schmidt proudly added a line of the Milarches’ trademarked “Champ Trees” to his company’s 2001 catalog.

Since their initial success, the Milarches have helped initiate cloning of 52 tree species, including a 350-year-old white ash in Palisades, N.Y., a record-size hackberry tree in Mason City, Ill., and a 126-foot aspen in the mountains near Troy, Mont.

Today, the National Tree Trust funds the Champion Tree Project, as the Milarches call their nonprofit foundation, and the father-son team travels around the country helping colleagues imitate their success.

Arborists across the country have formed official chapters to propagate champion trees in their areas, and botanists from Australia, England, Sweden, and the Royal Botanical Gardens in Canada have contacted the Milarches for advice.

“Dad’s a big inspiration in my life,” Jared says. “He’s a hero because of the sacrifices he’s made in his own life to do something he really loves.”

The Milarches also have joined with Harvard University to clone a 2,500-year-old giant sequoia known as General Sherman and agreed to help reforest Mount Vernon and Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia with starts from champion trees.

Perhaps they’ll choose progeny from the 300-year-old American elm growing on George and Sandra Svec’s farm in Buckley, Mich. The media’s spotlight on that cloning attempt prompted Sandra to place a sign-in sheet in a plastic Tupperware box atop an old kitchen chair by the road in front of their farm. Nearly 2,000 people, including foreign tourists, have recorded their presence the past several summers.

“Since I was a boy, that tree was a conversation piece,” George says. “Now the clones mean other families will have a chance to enjoy a piece of my life.”

Meanwhile, Jared, now 21, is pursuing an environmental science degree from Northwestern Michigan College in nearby Traverse City—and David is funneling royalties from the sales of cloned saplings to a scholarship fund he established for environmental education and research. Authorities say the fund could amass $100 million in the next 10 to 15 years.

“This project preserves and protects our two greatest resources: our children and our Earth,” David says.