A nonprofit group that says it promotes forests by cloning America's biggest and oldest trees arrived in eastern California Tuesday to claim a crown jewel.
In a stealth operation with the cooperation of the U.S. Forest Service, the tree advocates ventured into California's White Mountains to the home of Methuselah, a 4,768-year-old bristlecone pine recognized as the oldest known living tree.
Members of the Michigan-based Champion Tree Project International came to the secret location where the tree has grown since well before recorded history. With a Forest Service manager looking on, they plucked new growth, needles and cones off the gnarled tree. They hope the samplings will provide enough genetic material to make it possible to produce copies of Methuselah.
David and Jared Milarch, the father and son team that operates the Champion Tree Project, claim many benefits to cloning the nation's biggest and often oldest trees--some can be planted in weakened forests or used to replace sickly urban trees or saved for scientists to help understand the longevity of some of Earth's oldest living things.
The group has arranged for the cloning and propagation of more than 70 of the country's largest trees, known as "national champion trees," which are granted the designation based on girth, height and crown spread.
On Tuesday, Jared Milarch and the group's executive director also took samples from "the Patriarch," the largest bristlecone (although much younger than Methuselah).
Then, as though racing to deliver an organ to a transplant patient, the pair loaded their take onto ice and high-tailed it to Bishop to deliver the package to UC Davis for the cloning attempt.
"The value is in preserving the genetics of those trees and figuring out ... why they survived so long," said Jared Milarch, 24.
Milarch and his father, 53, founded the Champion Tree Project in 1996. Fifth-generation shade-tree farmers, they knew that not all was right with America's trees. The average lifespan of urban street trees is about 7 years, and nearly all old-growth forests have been logged.
We should capture the genetic material from the hardiest sentinels, they reasoned, before those trees are lost.
"The trees we are using today aren't working," said David Milarch, who was in Michigan during Tuesday's excursion. "A good place to start looking are the oldest, largest trees we have."
By saving samples of old and hardy trees, "we're trying to close the barn door before the horses get out," Milarch said.
Tucked on arid, inhospitable slopes, the oldest known bristlecone pines are clustered in a corner of the Inyo National Forest. Growth conditions there are so unique that the clones are not likely to be used for planting new forests elsewhere. And the bristlecone's twisted branches and stunted trunks make them commercially undesirable.
Rather, a successful cloning could open the door to research on the role of genetics in the trees' longevity, said Larry Payne, director of cooperative forestry for the U.S. Forest Service in Washington, D.C.
Even if the scientific gains from the cloning are limited, the publicity from cloning the world's oldest tree--and, say, displaying a cloned sapling at the National Arboretum--could be a powerful boost to efforts to promote forests, Payne said.
"If you want to draw people's attention to the trees and the importance of the environment, it's good to have a tree of that notoriety," said Payne, who helped organize the effort.
The Champion Tree Project hopes to clone champions of more than 800 U.S. tree species.
The group has drawn attention with both ceremony and gimmick: A sapling cloned from a 450-year-old champion red ash was among those planted at a Sept. 11 Pentagon memorial. Last year, the "Today" show broadcast the group as it picked pieces off poplars planted by George Washington at Mount Vernon. The Milarchs pledged to return to plant the clones.
The group long had its eye on Methuselah. Featured in a 1958 National Geographic article, for years a plaque identified it for visitors. But too many people picked at it and trampled its roots to pose for photographs, so officials now take pains to keep its location secret to prevent further damage.
The Champion Tree Project hopes to produce an exact replica of both the oldest and largest trees through cloning. As a backup, the group will also germinate seeds from cones, which contain genetic material of another parent. While Methuselah seeds have been germinated, Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest manager John Louth said he knows of no previous attempt at tissue cloning.
"Most of us think that this is really a long shot," because of the age of the trees, said Louth, who led Tuesday's excursion.
But the scientific challenge makes it worthwhile, said plant pathologist Chris Friel, a UC Davis doctoral student who will attempt the cloning.