Humble farmer. Calculating spin doctor. Recipient of angelic visitations. David Milarch has been all that and more in his quest to save the world—which he aims to do, one tree at a time.
This Traverse, Northern Michigan’s Magazine classic was featured in the September 2002 issue. Since these beginnings, Milarch has started a world-wide effort called Archangel Ancient Tree Archive. Read about the trees he’s saving today in the April 2021 issue of Traverse.
A dozen years ago, David Milarch was a third-generation shade tree farmer in a tiny Northern Michigan village. He woke at dawn, worked his fields and raised his two young sons.
One day, he died—but only for a little while. As his liver and kidney failed (many years of wild living taking their toll), Milarch zoomed through a tunnel toward a bright light. He saw colors like nothing he’d ever seen and met a man with a voice like thunder who told him there was a job for him to do on Earth.
Milarch lived, but he changed his life. He stopped seeking money, focused more on family, worked to live out some long-held environmental ideals. But apparently divine intervention wasn’t through with Milarch. Years later—shortly after his sons urged him to try an ambitious tree-cloning experiment—a bright light he believes was an angel woke him in the night. She told him to grab a legal pad and sit in his favorite leather chair to write. When he came out of his reverie at about 6 a.m., he looked down to find the outline of what was to become the Champion Tree Project—in perfect grammar and penmanship, something he insists he couldn’t have produced on his own.
Whatever you believe about near-death experiences or angelic visitations, what’s happened to Milarch in the six years since he wrote the Champion Tree Project plan is nearly a miracle itself.
Last year, the non-profit Champion Tree Project was one of the most widely covered environmental groups in the nation, with roughly 600 stories published in the print media alone. That’s particularly remarkable given that nobody knows for sure—and won’t for maybe a couple of centuries—if the theory behind the project even works.
The project’s goal is to find the largest specimen of each of America’s more than 800 species of trees, clone each one, and plant the clones in cities across the country. Eventually, Milarch would like to take the project global, cloning trees from around the Earth and propagating them in their native lands.
Milarch and a growing number of supporters believe it’s simple “farmer’s logic” that something more than luck—he’s betting on genetics—allows one tree to live on for hundreds, even thousands, of years, when its tree peers are long dead. Milarch says the average tree planted in America today dies in less than 10 years. Clones of champions, the project contends, should be genetically better equipped to withstand air pollution and other environmental hazards and grow into towering giants that’ll clean air and beautify streets throughout the nation’s cities over the long haul. It’s a hypothesis that by its very nature takes a long time to prove.
But what hasn’t taken long to prove is that the public is keenly interested. Dozens of news organizations—including The New York Times and the Today Show—were on hand with cameras, microphones and notebooks when Milarch and others clipped new buds for cloning from 13 Mount Vernon trees that George Washington himself planted two centuries ago. The project received more great press when it planted trees at the Salt Lake City Olympics. And on September 11, 2002, Milarch and his family will plant Champion Tree clones at the Pentagon in memory of those who died in last year’s terrorist attack—a high-profile planting that’s already led to an invitation to plant Champion Tree saplings at the nation’s capital. Even dignitaries from foreign countries launching reforestation projects are coming knocking at Milarch’s door in the tiny town of Copemish in northern Manistee County.
Certainly, gigantic trees have a universal appeal. But the project’s remarkable momentum seems to stem from the power of a 52-year-old man on a mission—a self-educated farmer so inspired by a brush with death and his fear of what humans are doing to the Earth that he’s become a crusader for the trees.
It’s 9 a.m. at the makeshift headquarters of the Champion Tree Project—the kitchen of a modest timber frame home Milarch and his wife Kerry built by hand in the late 1970s.
Milarch is an early riser (although he’s often still making calls at midnight) and by now he has already put in a 4 1/2 hour day on the family farm, which still pays the bills. This morning he wrapped eight shade trees in burlap for a tree farm customer. The good sale means he can buy parts later that afternoon for a broken tractor and a manure spreader. But most of what is left of this 16-or-so hour workday is devoted to the non-profit Champion Tree Project he founded six years ago with his son Jared, now 23.
“It’s been a hell of a morning,” Milarch says, commanding his own living room as he enters in faded jeans and a khaki work shirt. He sighs and runs his large hands (fingers too thick for typing is his favorite excuse for never learning to use a computer) through his graying hair. His trim white beard and ruddy complexion lend a woodsman look. Milarch’s eyes look tired, but they’re gleaming as he describes how the Wye Oak, the most famous tree on the East Coast and one of the most famous in America, was just hit by a tornado and blown down.
“We not only cloned [the Wye], we planted it at Mount Vernon on Arbor Day,” he says. “We’re in the Washington Post and Baltimore Sun. Let’s just say things are about normal. We’re heroes and living legends for cloning that tree.”
No one is likely to describe Milarch as modest—not when many conversations start with a summary of his latest book or movie possibility, a listing of recent media interviews or statements like, “The world’s calling. We’ve just got to answer it.” His wife Kerry, a social worker by training, jokes that he likes to hear himself talk so much that he can travel with someone for a week without even learning the person’s name.
Yet even the most self-promoting statements are tempered with such childlike enthusiasm that you end up cheering for the guy on what seems to be a selfless mission.
Milarch pours the last dregs from the coffeepot into his mug and joins Jared and partner Terry Mock, the group’s executive director and only paid staff member, for a meeting in the cozy kitchen. Milarch paces back and forth like a man who’d rather be outdoors, then plants himself cross-legged on the floor by a wood stove in the adjacent living room—facing a bird’s-eye view out a sliding door of thousands of acres of state forest land. He lights a cigarette and flicks the ashes into the stove, a habit that explains the occasional burn marks in the rust-colored shag carpet.
Several cell phones with different musical jingles are ringing continually—some for Milarch’s other son, Jake, who is home from college and alternately running the family farm and shooting hoops to keep in shape for next year’s college basketball season. Other callers have seen the nationwide PBS television special running on the project that week and are phoning their congratulations.
The confusion just adds to the excitement in the room. For even as the men lament the loss of a revered tree that’s lived through 18 human generations, serendipity like this—the fact that they cloned the tree just weeks before it was lost forever—lends momentum to an ambitious and expensive project. “We fell right into it again,” Milarch exclaims, smiling proudly. “It was the world’s first cloning of the Wye Oak and six weeks later, it blew down. Isn’t that a son of a bitch.”
Milarch slips from the room to plant a seed, but not a botanical one.
In a minute or two, you hear his side of a phone conversation with a Baltimore Sun reporter who wants to do a follow-up to that day’s cover story on the downed oak. The slant of this story is “heritage,” something Milarch clearly keeps in mind as he reclines on his bed, phone in one hand, a cigarette in the other, chatting about how trees give you a sense of your own mortality.
“There’s a 3,800-year-old cypress in Florida we cloned,” he says, his eyes closed. “When Christ walked the earth it was already 1,800 years old.”
He pauses to ponder a question from the other end of the line, as relaxed as if chatting with his closest friend.
“It’s like the same feeling you get when you walk into a cathedral,” he says. “You’re almost speechless.” Another pause. “Yep. Ninety-eight percent of our original arboreal forests are dead and gone. Within that remaining 2 percent we find champions. It’s pretty sad isn’t it that we’re handing our children just 2 percent of their heritage?”
Minutes later he joins his colleagues and recounts the interview.
“I said it would sure be nice to be invited to plant a clone at the exact site, so it could live on,” Milarch says, “and [the reporter] says, ‘Oh man. I’m going to put that in there.” Milarch smiles, then laughs a deep belly laugh. “Guess I’d better keep my calendar open.”
The next day’s story in the Sun quotes many heritage experts on topics as varied as historical places, documents and buildings, but Milarch’s quotes start and end the story.
To the average person, the three rows of 10-foot saplings basking in the noonday sunshine on the Milarch property look pretty much like any healthy young nursery trees. But to Milarch, these “are” the towering giants from which they were cloned—and his legacy.
“These big trees are like family,” he says, driving past the rows of small Norway maples and green ash trees. “Gosh. I’ll do whatever it takes to keep them around for all our grandkids if I can.”
On this 330-acre farm, surrounded by miles of land farmed by various relatives, Milarch and his sons grow 40 different varieties of Champion Trees they’ve bought from the nurseries that cloned them—just a small percentage of the roughly 200,000 Champion Tree clones growing today. When the trees are reproduced (a process by which a tree’s cells, tissues or twigs are grown into seedlings or grafted onto the root stock of other trees), some go to one of 36 public “living libraries,” where their genetics can one day be studied by scientists. Others are cloned in commercial nurseries scattered around the nation and then sold to individuals, companies or cities under the label Champtrees, something akin to the “Nike” of the tree world. Some Champtrees are already selling for up to four times the value of a typical tree of the species, though few are yet big enough for sale, Milarch and Mock say.
For each tree sold commercially, $1 then goes back to the project and the inventor—Milarch—who is channeling his royalties into a fund for environmental education. An arrangement that will keep greed from destroying his family, he says. The fund could grow to $300 million over 25 years if the expected number of trees sell.
But how big the project actually gets depends to some degree on patches of trees like the one on Milarch’s farm. He brings skeptics here to show them proof of the project’s theory. The trees at this point are not much bigger than non-Champ varieties, but the fact they’re growing at all—Milarch insists—is a victory of its own.
The roots of the Champion Tree Project actually go back a couple of generations to Milarch’s grandmother, who ran Duell Gardens in Traverse City. Milarch remembers reading the slogan on her business card at about age 6 and even then thinking he wanted to live by it: “When you go into this world, may it be a little more beautiful because you have been there.” His own parents grew trees on the family property where he now lives.
But most of Milarch’s education came the hard way—getting kicked out of the house for being violent at age 15, joining a motorcycle gang. He lived in Haight-Ashbury at the height of the hippie era, hitchhiked from coast to coast.
“I saw the deforestation of the Pacific Northwest before my eyes,” he says. “It looked like an atomic war zone. There were drums inside my head chanting danger, environmental danger. It inspired me to come home and grow more trees.”
He did come home, but he didn’t leave his wild life behind. At one point, he says, he was sent home from the hospital to die—with friends and family at his side. He recovered, miraculously, he says, after the life-changing near-death experience. One thing he recalls from the trip to the afterlife was the admonition “you will not do what you used to do,” something he says that included lusting after money and the “American dream.”
Determined to leave a better legacy for his sons, he studied the common thread that ran through the lives of great men and the advice of self-help writers. He then compiled a list of traits that would give his sons (then aged 5 and 7) the greatest chance for success in life.
The boys got used to sayings like, “You never walk so tall as when you stoop to help a child.” The word “can’t” was banned in the household. And every night when he’d tuck them in, their mother would read to them and then he would ask, “What can you do?” They would answer “anything.” He’d say, “What are the limits?” and the boys would answer, “There are none.”
While pruning trees one day years later, the boys overheard their father and grandfather talking about how air pollution was causing some of the nursery trees—their future livelihood—to wither.
“Why don’t we grow trees like the ones you and grandpa always take us to see?” Jared suggested, referring to the giant trees the family would visit on vacations.
Milarch couldn’t dismiss any idea—not after those nightly pep talks. So he called some university experts to run the concept past them. He was told it was impossible, that while tree cloning is an ancient practice, successfully cloning such old trees was as likely as an 80-year-old bearing children.
He wasn’t convinced, but he also wasn’t sure how the logistics of such a project could work—not until the angel’s visit. Milarch showed Jared the business plan he’d written in the night, and the two launched into the project with renewed enthusiasm, on a shoestring budget.
They borrowed grandpa’s truck and pole pruner and Jared was soon shimmying up the trunk of a 95-foot tall green ash in Elk Rapids. Jared, then a high school athlete, clipped some of the new growth and made his way down the equivalent of a swaying 10-story building. They sent the buds to J. Frank Schmidt and Son Nursery in Boring, Oregon—one of the nation’s largest tree wholesalers. Defying the odds, the clones grew. Nine months later, the rapid growth of young trees was featured in an article in American Nurseryman magazine.
Today, the Elk Rapids ash and a Michigan Norway maple cloned that same year are “nice sized, nice shaped trees” listed in Schmidt’s company catalog and available for sale at nurseries across the country, says Keith Warren, a horticulturalist who serves as director of product development. The growth rate has stabilized, for now.
“They fit right in with the rest of the varieties,” he says. “It’s not like the trees grow twice as big when they’re young. They might just keep growing longer…We know (Champion Trees) are the biggest of their species. We really don’t know why.”
But Milarch, Jared and a growing list of partners see many reasons to figure that out. The Wye Oak, for example, never succumbed to oak blight over its 500 years of life, and its leaves seemed to repel gypsy moths on their own. These trees, says Francis Gouin, a retired former chairman of the University of Maryland’s horticulture department, are like people who have smoked and drank all their lives and are still kicking at an improbable old age. They should be studied.
“When you look at most trees used in highway planting, their life expectancy is 7–9 years,” says Gouin, who has supported the Champion Tree Project by perfecting the difficult art of cloning old trees. He invented a new grafting method, for example, to clone the Wye—something no one had successfully done before him.
“This [the Wye Oak] has survived 460 years, had roads built over its roots, suffered air pollution and everything else and it’s still survived,” he says. “I think there’s great potential that it’ll produce clones that are equal with regard to vigor.”
The Champion Tree Project has successfully cloned about 80 trees so far, with a goal of 50 more a year, and the early efforts have been featured in such publications as Reader’s Digest and The New York Times. Meanwhile, inquiries are pouring in from places as far-ranging as China and Florida’s Seminole Indian reservation. One native healer asked Milarch to visit him in Florida, Milarch says. In a mystical visit, the man summoned a red-tailed hawk (Milarch’s favorite bird) from the sky, then told him he was the fulfillment of a legend—the “white bear from the North” sent to restore Florida’s grandfather trees.” The project’s Florida branch, Milarch points out, has identified and cloned more national champions than any other state.
David Milarch: guided by angels, sought by dignitaries, relied upon by national reporters, interviewed by TV hosts, and, yes, source of Indian legend. What’s his secret? What draws so many to this small-town tree farmer?
“He’s cheery,” explains Washington Post reporter David Cho, who says he even surprised himself when he picked up the phone to call Milarch the day after the Wye Oak fell. After all, Cho reports on immigration issues, not trees. He was working on a story about Korean Americans afraid they’d be detained by Korea if they attended the World Cup there when he heard the news about the Wye. But Cho thought immediately of Milarch and wondered how the man was feeling—so he called him at his Copemish home, just (according to the phone message he left) to grieve with him.
“When I interviewed him [for a story on the Wye Oak cloning], he mentioned ‘You’ve got to go see this tree.’” Cho says. “And lo and behold, before I got the chance, it toppled over. He seems to be a real tree lover, and even I was saddened by the thing. I thought it’d be an event to commiserate on.”
Milarch’s persistence can backfire—he faxed a press release to the Washington Post the very day they were running the Wye Oak story, prompting an editor to scream, “tell those people to stop clogging up our fax machine!” Cho says. Yet Milarch’s fascinating way of connecting with people—of connecting people with a subject like trees—goes a long way in explaining his success.
“We’re talking about the Wye Oak and he mentions this other tree that’s been living like 3,600 years,” Cho says. “He’s putting it in terms of when Jesus walked the Earth. That’s a fascinating fact that there’s a tree sitting in Florida that’s so old.”
Beyond that, Milarch can share facts without seeming to have an agenda, as if he himself is continually amazed.
“David’s just a really likeable guy,” Cho says. “It’s enjoyable talking to him. Not every source is like that.”
Over the past six years, The Champion Tree Project has evolved well beyond the man and son with the initial vision. The financial backing of the National Tree Trust and its first direct government allocation of funds last year has helped catapult the project onto the national scene. Horticultural experts like Gouin are increasingly lending credibility and volunteer support.
But the guiding vision continues to come from the man who on any given day might find himself chatting live with Katie Couric or riding his Case tractor across a field at sunrise. It comes from a man who believes all the work will be worthwhile, even if scientists one day determine that it wasn’t genetics that made champion trees grow larger—not if he inspires people to plant more trees.
“I think the legacy will be that at a time of global warming, when disaster is starting to set in from man’s poor utilization of the Earth’s resources, there was a voice,” Milarch says. “There was this voice from a little town that said ‘hey, we can help turn it around.’”
“Like I’ve been quoted a lot as saying, this project is only important to people who like to breathe. All others can pass on it.”
Why Plant a Tree
- A single tree with an 18-inch trunk produces enough oxygen throughout the year to support a family of four.
- An average-sized tree absorbs as much carbon from the atmosphere as is produced by a car driven 26,000 miles.
- Placed right, a tree can reduce air conditioning needs by 30 percent or through windbreak protection cut energy used for heating by 25 to 50 percent.
- Trees lower heart rates and reduce stress. Hospital patients who have a view of trees heal faster, use fewer pain medications and leave the hospital sooner than those with a view of a brick wall.
The secret of his success? Throughout the day, to himself and others, Milarch repeats these sayings over and over.
- What can you have? Anything! What are the limits? There are none.
- I’m a winner. I’m a winner.
- Nothing is ever as good as it seems or as bad as it seems.
- If it were easy, anybody could do it.
- “Daylight in the swamp.” (Or get up and get going early).
- Off your ass and onto your feet. Out of the shade and into the heat.
- A man never stands so tall as when he stoops to help a child.
- Don’t look back. They might be gaining on you.
- Remember: we’re only here on vacation.
- Love your enemies. It’ll drive them crazy.
- Yesterday’s a cancelled check. Today’s a gift. Tomorrow’s a promissory note.
- No matter what, take care of your mother.
Catch up with Milarch’s ongoing passion today as well as more articles capturing and celebrating Northern Michigan in the April 2021 issue of Traverse, Northern Michigan’s Magazine; or subscribe and get Traverse delivered to your door each month.