Group Prepares 'Champion' Tree Clones To Replenish Watersheds
LELAND, Mich. Michigan's "state champion" white poplar, its trunk a whopping 20 feet in circumference, stands just off the main street of this tourist village.
For picture-snapping gawkers, the location is ideal.
For the tree, it's a curse -- or should be.
Cars and pedestrians compact the soil around the 100-foot-high poplar. Asphalt and a wooden boardwalk cover its roots, robbing them of rainwater. With no buffer between it and nearby Lake Michigan, the tree absorbs the brute force of November gales, winter blizzards, summer squalls.
"One of the worst situations you can put a tree in," said David Milarch, co-founder of Champion Tree Project International, which seeks out the biggest and oldest trees and produces clones from their buds.
Yet the poplar, well over a century old, is thriving. While some might argue it's just been lucky, Milarch believes superior genes explain its extraordinary staying power. Trees in urban settings often live less than a decade, he said.
This one is among two dozen giants in northern Michigan that his organization has begun cloning in hopes of inspiring restoration of "urban forests" across the nation.
The collection ranges from the black willow to the American beech and cottonwood, plus a variety of maples and oaks -- native species nearly anywhere north of the Mason-Dixon line, Milarch said. But in many cities, landscape architects plant trees from foreign environments that are aesthetically pleasing but don't perform the ecological functions of the stalwart natives, he said.
"Trees are a natural filtering system that cleans the air and water," said Milarch, an arborist from Copemish who established the Champion Tree Project with his son, Jared, in 1996. "It's time to learn from our mistakes and rebuild and reforest our watersheds."
The project has cloned about 125 species, snipping off newly grown buds and using them to make genetically identical copies. Most have received state or national champion designations from botanical organizations for their dimensions.
Cloned champions have been planted on university campuses and historic sites such as George Washington's Mount Vernon estate. But the project's ultimate goal is to slowly bring back the native forests that were cleared for cities and suburbs in watersheds such as the Chesapeake Bay and Detroit's Rouge River.
Earlier this year, Lawrence Tech University said it would plant champion clones on its Southfield campus to help reforest the Rouge watershed. The first trees in an eventual "boulevard of champions" were planted on Arbor Day in Farmington Hills, Milarch said.
Now the project wants to plant clones from the northern Michigan collection on their home turf -- the Boardman River watershed in the northwestern Lower Peninsula, making it a model of urban forest restoration.
Milarch has approached officials about planting clusters of clones in open spaces along Grand Traverse Bay in Traverse City. Town leaders and university researchers are discussing options for sprucing up a 2-mile stretch of waterfront along the Lake Michigan bay but haven't committed to the champion tree idea.
"We're still having public meetings to determine what the community would like," city planning director Russ Soyring said. "It can be a sensitive issue when you talk about putting up anything along the waterfront that might obstruct the view."
Milarch said lower limbs can be pruned as the trees grow to protect the prized bay vistas. But he contends aesthetic concerns are far outweighed by the ecological value of trees, which serve the same cleansing function for a watershed as a filter does for an aquarium.
Leaves absorb atmospheric pollutants from tailpipes and smokestacks, said Neil Hendrickson, a technician with Bartlett Tree Research Lab, based in Charlotte, N.C. Root systems remove toxins in groundwater. Decaying leaves and other organic waste matter in the forest soil act as "a giant sponge," sopping up contaminants in rainwater before they soak into the ground.
"It's not just the tree, it's the mini-ecosystem that the tree represents above and below ground," Hendrickson said.
Young, rapidly growing trees take in the biggest volume of pollutants, bolstering the case for planting large numbers in urban areas, he said.
Care must be taken to select trees suited to local conditions -- soil type, climate, availability of water and nutrients, said Burton Barnes, professor of forest ecology at the University of Michigan.
"It's difficult to move trees too far out of their range without changing their habits," Barnes said. "The rule is that the local source is best."
The Champion Tree Project will continue gathering buds for its northern Michigan collection this fall, with funding help from Grand Rapids philanthropist Peter Wege. Some of the earliest clones, obtained a couple of years ago, could be ready for planting next spring if suitable locations are found.
About 30,000 champion clones have been grown at more than a dozen nurseries around the country -- a fraction of what will be needed to reforest large regions. They typically cost about 25 percent more than other nursery stock of the same species, Milarch said.
A challenge will be convincing people that champions are worth the extra money. Milarch acknowledges his theory of their genetic superiority is unproven. Some forest researchers say it's plausible, while others say location and random fortune may matter more.
"If we don't preserve the genetics of these trees, we'll never find out," Milarch said, gazing upward at the sprawling white poplar in Leland.
"The experts say this isn't a good choice for a street tree. Well, against all the odds, this sucker's a champion. This is what we need to rebuild the filter in our cities, the proven champions."
Source: Associated Press