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A savior of tree species: Life’s mission inspired by angel


September 7, 2013
By Francis X. Donnelly
The Detroit News

Copemish -- David Milarch believes he died and came back to life. And the reason was God had a mission for him.

The mission was simple if grandiose: Clone the biggest trees and cover the world with them.

The north Michigan nurseryman had little money, education or experience with cloning.

Few people had ever tried to reproduce such old trees, which scientists said was improbable.

Yet, in fits and starts, he has gradually cloned 140 species of trees across the United States, including ones that were 40 stories high and existed before Jesus was born.

Several thousand trees are growing at his research facility 25 miles southwest of Traverse City. He has planted 10,000 for free in northern Michigan and California.

His goal is to eventually plant enough trees to fight climate change. Trees absorb carbon dioxide, the greenhouse gas that contributes to global warming.

After nearly two decades of spreading the gospel, he gets calls from all over the world asking him to visit.

“Isn’t it about time we did something?” he asked. “Why is it so hard for people to understand that?”

Milarch, 64, has accomplished all this with charm, perseverance and a singular vision.

He is Johnny Appleseed in a trucker cap, a ruddy bear of a man trying to save the world.

Nothing can deter him from his quest, said his son, Jared.

“It’s an idea he cannot rest from,” the younger Milarch said. “It’s a testament to how focused he is on one issue. You can’t lose if you don’t quit.”

Milarch isn’t your typical environmentalist.

Unless, by “typical,” you mean a chain-smoking, profanity-spewing, hard-living farmer who once was an alcoholic and street brawler.

He says he gets messages from angels who guide his work.

The talkative Milarch tells you all this in a nonstop narrative about his life and work. He loves to tell stories that end with dramatic pronouncements.

“It’s all hands on deck,” he proclaimed. “The solutions are here. Mother Nature has the answers.”

One of the stories he tells is about the beginning of his crusade.

In 1991, he gave up drinking cold turkey but the sudden withdrawal caused kidney and liver failure.

Lying in bed, he felt his consciousness rise, leave the room and pass through brilliant white light. But an angel told him it wasn’t his time to die, that he still had work to do.

Several months later, still sober, he was awakened by bright lights in his bedroom. A female voice said she had an assignment for him.

The next morning he found a 10-page manifesto describing how to reforest the world. It was in his handwriting but he didn’t remember writing it.

His wife, Kerry, told him there was no way he had written it.

“There are no spelling mistakes,” she said, according to “The Man Who Planted Trees,” a 2012 book about his work.

At the time, Milarch wasn’t religious or a tree-hugger. He was just a third-generation tree nursery operator struggling to feed his family.

Spreading the growth

The gist of his plan is to clone champion trees, which are the tallest of their species, and spread them around the country.

He believes superior genes helped the trees grow so large and last so long. Through cross-pollination, the clones could spread their DNA to other trees.

Scientists said they don’t know whether genetics make some trees heartier than others. A bigger factor could be location, care or just luck.

But tree experts said they like Milarch’s idea of restocking the world’s forests.

Besides fighting climate change, trees help the environment by emitting oxygen, reducing runoff and absorbing toxic waste in the soil, they said.

Bill Libby, professor emeritus of forestry and genetics at the University of California, Berkeley, said Milarch is generating interest in trees and could develop breakthroughs in cloning.

“If you gather 100 such trees, it’s pretty likely that you have some trees that are better able to do that (become heartier because of superior genes).”

Financial difficulties

Milarch has been nothing if not resilient during his quixotic campaign.

Starting out in 1994, he borrowed a pickup, aluminum ladder and pruner from his dad. A bankruptcy had left him with no money.

In 2009, a black mold infected his tree warehouse, killing 16,000 cuttings in one month.

But his biggest challenge has been money. For 19 years, he has lurched from one source of funding to another. A grant here. A huge donation there.

In between are the hard times. In 2011, his nonprofit group, Archangel Ancient Tree Archive, and its 17-person staff closed up shop.

A donor allowed it to reopen last year with three workers but another crisis beckons in December when funding is due to run out.

“We’ve gone through financial hardships that would break most families,” Milarch said. “We’ve eaten a lot of potatoes.”

'A walk of faith'

Despite the obstacles, he has painstakingly expanded his work from the state to the country to the world.

His constant proselytizing has drawn support from some scientists and well-heeled supporters, whose donations allow him to keep the enterprise afloat.

He turned an abandoned potato warehouse into a bustling facility where people clone, grow and ship trees.

He remains ever hopeful that somewhere, somehow, someone will step forward to allow Archangel to keep the lights on.

It’s the way of the group, he said.

“Every day of my life is a walk of faith,” he said. “I don’t know how this all is going to end up. But nobody will be able to say we didn’t give everything we could.”

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