Champion trees and an urgent plan to help the planet

Soapbox: Bioneers speaker to relate fascinating info on trees

“Not to speak, is to speak. Not to act, is to act.” These are the famous words spoken by Pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Mahatma Gandhi had the same understanding when he said, “You must be the change you wish to see in the world.” Opposition to the status quo, whether it be dangerous or not, takes courage and dedication. I’m not referring to criminal acts or treason.

 I mean the sort of bravado shown by regular citizens who see a problem affecting the health, safety or beauty of their own community and resolve to remedy the situation. The task may seem monumental to those who lack the initiative to be anxiously engaged in a good cause.

In Jean Giano’s award-winning classic, “The Man Who Planted Trees,” a humble shepherd was convinced that the land was dying for lack of trees, so he set his life’s course to do something about it by planting trees wherever he was able. His unselfish, and unheralded, commitment resulted in a vibrant new community. Springs began to flow again, a cooler climate ensued, verdant crops were harvested within tree-lined borders, and stress and enmity left the village. It became a place where people wanted to live. The shepherd was one of God’s athletes. He saw a problem and was determined to fix it.

In 2001, an article was published about David Milarch, a shade tree nurseryman in Michigan who started the Champion Tree Project. Milarch is the kind of man who heeds Bonhoeffer’s challenge and follows the path of the shepherd. It was Milarch’s goal to take DNA cuttings from the best of the 826 tree species in the U.S. and clone them to safeguard a living collection for replanting into various forests. Skeptics dismiss the idea that trees can alter a community as much as Giono infers and submit that “Champion Trees” may have survived simply because they were bypassed by calamitous events.

For the record, a Champion Tree is one that has attained the highest combined score for measurements of diameter at breast height, crown size, and height. There is the possibility that they were unscathed by destructive fires, landslides or floods … or there may be other factors that contribute to their longevity. But the other side of the coin makes one wonder if their survival also may have been affected by superior genetics. David Milarch brought that side of the coin to New York Times science writer Jim Robbins, who was intrigued by that possibility. Robbins started to investigate.

He discovered that like-minded people around the globe supported Milarch’s quest. Tree research has taken place in many nations for many years, yet, as Robbins states, “When it comes to our ancient forests, we have nearly wiped them out — more than 90 percent of America’s old-growth forest is gone and is still being cut, and some 80 percent of the world’s has vanished. Yet we have only begun — only begun — to understand the ecological role these forests play or what secrets might be locked away in their genes.”

Trees. What are they good for? Absolutely something. Consider just a few of what could easily be 50 or more benefits: Food for people and wildlife, carbon storing, oxygen production, windbreaks that prevent erosion, providing cooling shade, producing water vapor, cleaning air of particulate matter and polluting gases, wildlife habitat, water purification, leaf litter composting into rich soil, roots removing toxic chemicals from soil, supplementing heating/cooling systems for buildings, providing visual and sound screening for landscapes, reducing Heat Island Effect in urban areas, and releasing beneficial aerosols.

Robbins also found the important part trees have played in diverse religions and cultures. The Tree of Life and Tree of Knowledge in Judeo-Christian scriptures; the Asvatha Cosmic Tree in India; the Yggdrasil Tree of the Norse people; the Old Tree of the Haida people of British Columbia; ancient Egyptians and Persians believed spirits inhabited trees; the Tule Tree of Oaxaca, Mexico; the Bodhi Tree of Buddha; and the many Medicine Trees of Native American tribes are just a few of the sacred trees revered by people around the globe.

Our contemporary minds are so occupied with our current agenda that we take for granted, or completely ignore, the biologic systems that keep us alive. For instance, have you ever given serious thought to what the world would be like if there were no trees? Probably not. It has nothing to do with how our favorite sports teams perform, the price of gasoline, or who will win on “Dancing With The Stars.” Robbins remarks, “What an irony it is that these living beings whose shade we sit in, whose fruit we eat, whose limbs we climb, whose roots we water, to whom most of us rarely give a second thought, are so poorly understood.”

Can trees, or more accurately forests, actually have a positive impact on climate? Is the Champion Tree Project a viable solution to global reforestation efforts? Are there things we can do to improve the quality of life here in Cache Valley for ourselves and generations yet unborn? How can we develop the passion for noteworthy projects like David Milarch’s? The public is invited to learn the answers to those questions, and several other topics such as clean energy, permaculture, biomimicry, national parks, issues dealing with fracking natural gas, and an interfaith panel discussing how their religions have common themes dealing with stewardship of the Earth. Join with Cache Valley residents by attending the 10th annual Intermountain Bioneers Conference Saturday, Nov. 1 and 2, at the Bridgerland Applied Technology College at 1301 N. 600 W. in Logan. Here is your chance to speak, to act, and perhaps start a change in the world.

Take advantage of a rare opportunity to hear keynote speaker Jim Robbins, who will discuss his fascinating book, “The Man Who Planted Trees: Lost Groves, Champion Trees, and an Urgent Plan to Save the Planet,” and his experiences with David Milarch and the Champion Tree Project. For details, and conference registration, go

Submitted by Ron Hellstern, Logan, Utah

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About Author: Ron Hellstern
LDS Church member; Chair Utah State Envirothon; Chair Utah affiliate for National Wildlife Federation; Chair Tree City USA Board Nibley, Utah; Intermountain Bioneers Committee; Audubon Board of Trustees; Utah Monarch Program

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