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Cloned Sequoias Will Be Planted At Interlochen Center for the Arts

Sara Hoover

Near the shores of the Lake Michigan sits a grove of sequoias. They stand on the site of a former Morton Salt factory, where men once mined salt brine out of the Great Lakes. Sequoia trees are not native to Michigan, but this grove has grown in Manistee for more than 65 years, ever since Mrs. Morton brought the saplings with her from the West Coast. Since then, the giant trees have grown accustomed to tough Michigan winters.

Those trees are going to take another trip. Or their clones will.

Credit Sara Hoover
Thousands of cuttings grow in a mist chamber in a soilless mix until they can grow their own root system.

On Earth Day, students who attend Interlochen Arts Academy are planting them on campus along Green Lake.

The clones are from Archangel Ancient Tree Archive. David Milarch is the non-profit organization's co-founder. He says they’re planting clones of redwoods around the world today.

"96 percent of all of our redwoods have been cut down, butchered and sold," he says.

Mary Ellen Newport, director of the school’s math and science division, hikes out to the site where the grove will be planted. The lake is still frozen and snow covers the ground. The new arrivals will go between the main outdoor auditorium and handicapped-accessible cabins. She says the planting is partly to help combat climate change.

"What studies have shown is there a couple of species who are really very effective and efficient at pulling carbon out, and what we know is actually the biggest trees do the best job at pulling carbon out."

The planting is a teaching opportunity for her students.

Credit Sara Hoover
David Milarch checks on his cloned sequoias in Copemish, Michigan, in April. The cuttings are from 70 different redwoods, including stumps.

"They can appreciate where these trees are coming from," she says. "They can understand their role in, not just the northern Michigan community, but in a global planetary community in terms of carbon flow."

More than 90 percent of America’s old-growth forest is gone and 80 percent of the world’s.

The 1200-acre campus has no shortage of trees. It borders Interlochen State Park, Michigan’s first state park, built to protect the old-growth white pine trees, the state tree. Both the campus and the state park have lost many trees recently, due to disease and bug infestations.

Because of disease, 90 percent of the emerald ash trees are already gone from the park.

Chris Stark, the park’s head ranger says he’s never worked at a park with such significant issues. Almost 50 percent of the staff’s time is spent cutting and cleaning up trees.

“Our philosophy has gone from disease management to hazard tree removal,” he says.

That means they no longer try to prevent disease in the trees, but are resigned to that fact. The rangers now focus on taking down the most rotten, hollow trees that pose the most hazardous threat. Last summer, they took down approximately 5,000 trees. Preservation is no longer the focus.

Credit Sara Hoover
The micro-propagation room is where small cuttings are grown in agar in airless jars.

Stark has mixed feeling about the planting of the non-native sequoias. The original ones in Manistee never bore cones, which means they are sterile, and their clones will be too. The clones will be non-invasive and not take over the current forest.

“Anytime you plant a tree. It’s a good thing,” he says. “And it’s not pushing out the native trees. Cloning makes some sense. If the white pine, if we were going to lose them all, I would be in favor of saving them by planting a new (cloned) generation.”
Stark says, as part of a state park, the trees cannot be cloned nor can they accept cloned trees. Next door, however, these aren’t the first clones on campus.

“Interlochen is a home to several champion trees,” says Bill Singer, director of maintenance and custodial services at Interlochen Center for the Arts. “There are people with the opinion that they shouldn't be here, but they go along with the other trees that we have. We have one of the last American elms available, according to Mr. Milarch, in the world.”

Credit Sara Hoover
If the cuttings can grow in the jars, then hypothetically they can grow in any tissue lab in the world. The group could then grow millions of trees at an exponential rate.

The school also has a clone of the Hippocrates Sycamore, the tree in Greece that Hippocrates taught medicine under, as well as, cottonwood trees from the route that Lewis and Clark took on their expedition out West.

Earth Day will be held on Tuesday, April 22, at the Interlochen Center for Arts.