(Editor’s note: EarthFix Field Notes are reporters’ personal impressions and experiences from their coverage of the Pacific Northwest. In this entry, Reporter Amelia Templeton visits a steep hillside above the Oregon Coast where a non-profit is planting redwood trees that were cloned from Northern California giants.)
A storm is battering the hills above Port Orford on the Oregon coast.
Rain falls sideways and the trees creak. Terry Mock is drenched, but he has work to do. He’s carrying a pair of redwood trees: slender, about 3 feet tall, their roots tucked in narrow black pots.
“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,” he says.
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.
“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,” Mock says.
Stress like climate change. Redwoods grow where heavy fog rolls in from the Pacific. From Big Sur, Calif. to Brookings, Ore. Mock owns 160 acres near Port Orford, about fifty miles north of the tip of the Redwood’s historic range. He believes his land will provide a cool refuge for the redwoods.
Archangel announced it was planting 250 of its clones on Mock’s Port Orford ranch on Dec. 4, but the weather is so bad, Mock stops after planting the first two.
The group was founded by a man named David Milarch, a nursery owner from Michigan.
“We need the healthiest, strongest, toughest trees to help us as a species survive climate change” he says.
Milarch believes, with an almost evangelical fervor, in the genetic superiority of large trees. But scientists aren’t convinced that the very largest redwoods got that way because of something special in their genes.
Brad St. Clair, a tree geneticist with the research branch of the U.S. Forest Service, says a tree’s environment may have more of an impact on its size.
“More likely, when you’re looking at an individual, the individual tallest tree or something, it was just luck,” he says.
St. Clair 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.
“I’m more concerned about those populations at the southern end of the range of redwood,” he says.
St. Clair suggests that scientists and conservationists concerned about climate change should focus on preserving the scattered redwood trees groves in California’s Santa Clara Mountains near Big Sur.
Those redwoods may have useful genetic adaptations, and the fragmented populations may need human help- a strategy called “assisted migration” — moving farther north, in this case.
“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.”
So why is Milarch focused on cloning large trees when geneticist say size just isn’t that important? He says we don’t know that much about trees yet, and preserving a genetic fingerprint of the giants could be useful in the future.
“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,” he says.
Well, not exactly. St. Clair says there’s another problem with cloning very large redwoods. As trees age, their genes get old too, and start to accumulate mutations. A 2,000 year old redwood may have a lot of mutations. If you clone that tree, you copy those mutations as well.
“It’s likely that most mutations are not beneficial,” he says.
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.
Several biologists and conservationists I contacted to discuss Archangel’s cloned trees didn’t have anything to say on record.
On background, this is what I was 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.
That’s how it seemed to me too, until I saw the site where Mock and Milarch are planting their little redwood clones: a steep slope that was recently clear-cut, bare except for the stumps of a few large Douglas firs.
Terry Mock says a power company had already cleared a right-of way nearby.
“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 and this one is small, but it’s jarring to see a clear-cut that was carried out by an environmental group. Most environmentalists oppose this kind of logging; it can leave slopes more prone to landslide and nearby trees more vulnerable to wind.
Ken VanderVoorden, one of the loggers who helped clear the slope, has come to watch Mock plant the redwood clones. He says the forest was Doug fir and alder, forty to sixty years old.
“You know for the purpose we’ve done it for I feel it was a generous trade-off with Mother Nature,” VanderVoorden says.
In a hundred years, a redwood grove may shade this bare slope, if the bears and the deer don’t eat the young trees; 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 Orford.
It’s 327 feet. That’s taller than many redwoods.
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