by Jane Stebbins
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David Milarch holds one of 250 clone saplings that were planted in 2012 in Port Orford.

A thousand redwood saplings are headed from Michigan to the southern Oregon coast in hopes of staying a step ahead of climate change and keeping the species alive.

These aren’t your average redwood trees. They’re clones from 50 different champion 2,000-3,000-year-old coastal redwood trees that David Milarch, co-founder of the Archangel Ancient Tree Archive, propagated from the tips of branches, including sprouts growing from the stump of a tree cut down 123 years ago.

Milarch, a horticulturist from Michigan, was told the cloning couldn’t be done, that the old stump was too old to collect viable material.

The stump, located in an undisclosed area of Northern California, is 32.5 feet in diameter — 3 feet larger than the famous General Sherman tree in Sequoia National Park, the largest known tree in the world.

“It was 1,000 years old when Jesus walked here,” Milarch said of the Litchfield stump. “That’s the only way I can kind of get an understanding of how old they are.”

The goal

The mission of Archangel Ancient Tree Archive is to “propagate the world’s most important old growth trees before they are gone, archive the genetics of ancient trees in living libraries around the world, and reforest the Earth with the offspring of these trees to provide the myriad of beneficial ecosystem services essential for all life forms to thrive,” the nonprofit’s website reads.

Planting the redwood saplings is part of a “assisted migration” in the anticipation of climate changes as the world warms, Milarch said. Storms seem to be getting stronger, monsoon seasons last longer, drought is prevalent in places once lush and other areas of the world are flooding more often.

Coast redwood trees thrive on thick fog and, as the climate changes, there is less of it in the trees’ normal climate zone, from north of San Francisco to the Oregon and California border. And even the fast-growing redwood can’t evolve — physically move — quickly enough to stay ahead of climate change.

The southern Oregon coast however, has the perfect environment for the trees, Milarch said.

He cut branch tips six years ago and nursed them in his lab until they were about 3 feet tall. In 2012, he shipped 100 of them to Port Orford, where several people braved a storm and steep terrain to get to prime fog-prone hillsides.

He has since grown and planted saplings on every continent — they are native to all but Antarctica — in hopes of keeping the species alive.

This is the second set of cloned trees Milarch will plant in Ocean Mountain Ranch, a 163-acre ranch near Port Orford. Other trees will be planted next week on public and private lands from Brookings north to Florence.

The developer of the ranch, Terry Mock, met Milarch while searching for more durable trees for his urban landscaping plans. His goals and those of Milarch’s matched.

“We’re following the science,” Mock said in December 2012. “Science says climate change is here and it’s going to accelerate. The (planting) zones will move north. Every farmer in America understands this. A whole group of people say it’s a hoax. But it’s happening.”

His property, Ocean Mountain Ranch, is just north of the native range for redwood trees. And fossil records indicate the world was once covered in the species, indicating they can grow everywhere except the poles and the tropics, Milarch said.

“Will they grow great there? Will they reproduce?” Mock asked. “We’re not saying we know all the answers. This is a great experiment.”