David Milarch discovered his calling as a tree evangelist during a near-death experience from renal failure 19 years ago. “When I came to, there was a ten-page outline that I don’t remember writing,” says the cofounder of this Michigan-based environmental group. His mission, dictated (he sincerely believes) by the Archangel Michael: to clean up the planet’s air and water and reverse the effects of climate change by cloning the world’s biggest, oldest trees.
Once a hard-living biker, Milarch developed a passionate spiritual connection to old-growth trees—especially redwoods and giant sequoias. Both species can live for millennia, pumping out oxygen and sequestering tons of atmospheric carbon. Milarch, along with his son Jared and project coordinator Meryl Marsh, started taking cuttings from the tops of the most titanic redwoods and sequoias they could find, as well as sprouts from huge stumps. Working in a Monterey, California, greenhouse and using various propagation techniques, project consultant Bill Werner has coaxed bits of the plant tissue to root and grow into field-ready transplants. Archangel also maintains living libraries of more than 40 cloned species, from an ancient Monterey cypress to thousand-year-old Irish oaks.
Some scientists have questioned whether genetic material alone is responsible for the trees’ size and longevity, arguing that favorable growing conditions could just as likely explain it, but Milarch sides with his science adviser, the eminent redwood geneticist William J. Libby. Next year, Milarch hopes to start planting redwood saplings in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, and he’s looking for investors to underwrite other planting projects in the U.S. and abroad. “We want to rebuild the world’s first old-growth redwood forest,” he says. “They’re the most iconic trees on earth.”