For National Geographic News
If trees had tongues, oh, the stories they could share.
History books tell us that 200 years ago President Thomas Jefferson sent Meriwether Lewis and William Clark's Corps of Discovery out on an epic adventure into the uncharted North American West.
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Lewis and Clark's journals recount encounters with grizzly bears, curious natives, empty stomachs, and the Rocky Mountains. But the only living witnesses to the corps's trials and tribulations are the trees the explorers passed along the way.
Beginning August 1, a Big Timber, Montana-based nurseryman will lead a 6-week, 6,500-mile (10,500-kilometer) trek to locate, identify, and take genetic samples from some of these trees, so that their clones can be produced for future generations.
"It is just a good, down-to-Earth project," said Martin Flanagan, the Rocky Mountain representative for the Champion Tree Project International, who will lead the expedition.
The nonprofit tree project was founded by David Milarch and his son Jared, shade tree nurserymen based in Copemish, Michigan. In 1996 they set out to clone and create a genetic archive of each of the nation's largest trees, which includes some 850 different species.
The largest of each species is known as a champion. Largeness, according to Milarch, is determined by the tree's circumference at 4.5 feet (1.4 meters) off the ground. The tree's height and crown spread are also taken into consideration.
Milarch is riding the wave of interest in the Lewis and Clark bicentennial to get the tissue he needs from champions located along the route from St. Louis, Missouri, to Fort Clatsop, Oregon.
The team will also collect cuttings from trees of historical importance, such as from the cottonwoods the Corps of Discovery camped under at the Smith Grove Wildlife Management Area along the Missouri River in North Dakota.
The collecting, said Milarch, has precedent. Jefferson ordered Lewis and Clark to take note and record the vegetation they encountered along the way. The explorers returned to St. Louis with several tree samples in hand.
"We think the bicentennial is a good time to freshen up the collection ordered by Jefferson, to gather trees that really are the last living things to witness Lewis and Clark's adventure," Milarch said.
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