Group to Clone "Champion" Trees of Lewis and Clark

John Roach
For National Geographic News
August 2, 2004
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.

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.

Finding Champions

Flanagan said he is identifying what trees to collect by reading Lewis and Clark's journals as well as gleaning information from Wayne Phillips's 2003 book Plants of the Lewis and Clark Expedition.

Through this reading, combined with research on the ground in Montana, Idaho, Oregon, and North and South Dakota, Flanagan has identified several state and national champions along the Lewis and Clark trail and other trees of historical importance.

Together with Milarch, Flanagan will collect cuttings from about 30 trees over the course of the next six weeks, between Fort Mandan in North Dakota and the Pacific Coast. They hope to collect more tissue from the Fort Mandan-to-St. Louis leg of the journey in 2005.

"[Lewis and Clark] didn't get back to St. Louis until 1806," Flanagan said. "We're getting a good start on this. To run this trip in six weeks and do it justice—it can't be done without possibly a huge amount of people."

Creating Clones

To create clones, the nurserymen generally graft buds from the parent trees onto rootstock of the same species.

Terry Mock, executive director of the Champion Tree Project International in West Palm Beach, Florida, said individual trees are like individual people, the genetics of each are different. As a result, some trees clone easily, others don't.

"If you succeed in cloning the first time, which you don't always do, it's between a five- and seven-year period before you have a commercial quantity of trees available," he said.

The ultimate goal of the Champion Tree Project International is to plant clones of the champions in urban centers around world, where they have the genetic potential to outlast average urban trees, which have an average lifespan of just seven to ten years.

As the team works toward achieving their goal, they undertake projects such as the Lewis and Clark expedition project. They'll plant clones of these historically significant trees in highly visible locations to raise awareness of the project.

In addition to the Lewis and Clark project, the arborists have cloned historically significant trees at George Washington's Mount Vernon estate in Virginia, Thomas Jefferson's Monticello in Charlottesville, Virginia, and Teddy Roosevelt's Sagamore Hill estate on Long Island, New York.

For the Lewis and Clark trees, Milarch said he is hoping to find a prominent home for them in St. Louis, Missouri.

"Wouldn't it be cool to know our great, great grandchildren will walk under and camp under these historic old-growth trees?" Milarch said.

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