Tag Archives: forests

What’s up with Archangel?

This tiny seed contains the genetic code to grow a new coast redwood
This tiny seed contains the genetic code to grow a new coast redwood

David Milarch is at it again: evangelizing about the need to clone super trees to save the world from climate change. This time he has taken his message across the atlantic and touched down in Britain. According to an article in the Observer, he’s backed by Richard Branson,  the founder of the Eden project, and is even meeting with Prince Charles’ forestry advisors. I hope these luminaries see Mr. Milarch and his Archangel project for what it is: a distraction from the real issues facing forests around the world.

Mr. Milarch came and met with me a number of years ago while I was running Save the Redwoods League. His offer was simple: join him in saving the redwoods through cloning.  As an aside, he went on to say if we didn’t join him he’d make the League irrelevant as he would be the savior of the redwoods.  Despite the fact I don’t like veiled threats, I listened and we talked. Then as now, I had concerns about his approach and ultimately  declined to join his project.

Since then, Archangel has been racing to clone super trees that plant in groves around the world. They theorize that because these champion trees have survived for so long they are our best bet to reforest the Earth and soak up all the excess carbon dioxide we continue to emit.  For me, that is taking the science a step too far.  Forest conservation and management have an important role to play in the fight against climate change. But putting all our eggs in the cloning basket is just too risky. Clones are, by definition, genetically identical. A disease that takes out one will take out them all. And just because an individual tree has survived what nature has thrown at if for the past 1,000 years doesn’t mean its best adapted for the novel conditions coming in the next 100 years, let alone next 1,000 years.  Much better to protect the rich genetic diversity of all forests, rather than focus on a few superlatives.

12 people stand on the Fieldbrook stump with room to spare
12 people stand on the Fieldbrook stump with room to spare

Without a doubt Archangel has done some interesting work. Take the example of the Fieldbrook stump. Perhaps the largest redwood ever to live, and now a decaying stump in farmland near Arcata California. Archangel has resurrected this tree and plans to plant clonal copies around the world. It would be a talking point to have a copy in your garden for sure! The cloning work itself is interesting, but by no means ground-breaking — gardeners have been cloning plants and trees with cuttings for centuries after all.

So by all means support the work of Mr. Millarch and Archangel, but please don’t lose sight of what it really is:  Creating museum copies of a small handful of nature’s wonders. If you really want to help the Earth’s forests and battle climate change there are much better places to invest your money.

Read my previous post on cloning here: http://wp.me/p2V0ap-8Q

American Dream: Conservation Nightmare?

Thoreau built one near Walden Pond. Uncle Tom was sold into slavery from one. And I have spent many a happy week in one perched high above the rim of Zion National Park. It is of course the classic American Cabin. The cabin is synonymous for me with the American dream. Getting back to nature in a simple structure set in some beautiful place. What’s not to like about that?

Thoreau...Henry David Thoreau
[Walden Pond / Flickr / Eric Bonnen]

If you care about conservation of our natural environment a lot, unless its approached very carefully.

According to recent census estimates reported by HomeInsight, nearly 6% of American’s own a second home — mostly within 150 miles of their prime residence and often in the mountains, near the beach, or in some other natural setting where recreational opportunities abound. And while Thoreau’s cabin was little more than a one-room shack with a porch, second home size has ballooned and now regularly approach (or even exceed) the size of people’s primary residence. To put it in perspective, America has the largest average home size in the world, at 2,300 square feet compared to 820 square feet in the UK, according to a report by the BBC.

In other words, we’re building more and more large homes in rural areas at low density. While some get rented out and see a lot of use, that’s a lot of homes dotted through our countryside that get scant use. The impact of rural residential sprawl on the natural habitat of the surrounding area has not been well studied but includes impacts on wildlife, water quality, air quality, and increased risk of fire.

That’s why it was gratifying to read that the ill-conceived Preservation Ranch project in the coastal forests of Sonoma County, California, has finally come to an end. This proposal to convert a 19,640 acre forested area into 60 trophy “vineyard homes” has been been replaced with a conservation plan that maintains it as working forest while removing the threat of development and opening it up for public access.  In a deal pieced together by the Conservation Fund, the State Coastal Conservancy, Sonoma County Agricultural Preservation and Open Space District and the Sonoma Land Trust with the assistance of the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation have ensured the future of this land. The land will be owned by the Conservation Fund, subject to a conservation easement to be held by the Open Space District and adds to the conservation lands already protected by the Conservation Fund to the north.

Early development on Preservation Ranch - Jamie Hall (bohemia.com)
Early development on Preservation Ranch – Jamie Hall (bohemia.com)

This deal used $10 million on state bond funds and $4m in county open space funds, along with private support from the Conservation Fund and Moore Foundation.  That’s a lot of money. One crazy aspect of the project is the money behind the ill-conceived development was CalPERS funds — that’s California State retirement funds managed for public sector workers. In other words, we are using state bond funds to buy out a state pension fund. It would be nice if the state’s investment arm talked to the Resource Agency before making investments working counter to state policy and goals to protect wildlife and forests. Is that too much to ask?

And one more thing, in a time of budget cuts and a debate over tax reform in Washington, recall that mortgages on second homes are eligible for tax relief. It is estimated that this deduction will cost the government over $100 billion this year — assuming 3% of that is due to second homes (an estimated from 2000) that is is a $3 billion subsidy to promote rural sprawl.  If you’re a renter it can be tough to understand why you should get a tax-break for borrowing money to purchase a first home. But come on, why extend that break to second homes? It makes no sense what so ever — either from a social justice perspective OR a conservation perspective. It’s one tax “loop hole” that could be closed with unexpected conservation consequences.

Preservation Ranch links to conserved land to the north
Preservation Ranch links to conserved land to the north

Can we halt animal extinction by restoring forests?

An article on the London-based Guardian website caught my eye last week. Having completed an exhaustive study in the Brazilian Amazon, scientists have determined that even if deforestation halted across the region overnight, dozens of species are doomed to disappear. To put it simply, when their homes are removed, the species can hang on for a while, but over time competition for food increases, breeding rates fall and a slow death sentence lingers over them. It makes for grim reading. But the story does end on a positive note: “to prevent species extinctions it is necessary to take advantage of the window of opportunity for forest regeneration. Restored forests . . . gradually recover species richness.”

Selection harvest in Mendocino County.
Selection harvest in Mendocino County. Photo by Suzette Cook

Nowhere is this truer than in the redwood forests, some of the most productive forests in the world. I also feel we are at a turning point in the history of the redwoods.

The story of the redwoods is a familiar one. In a little more than a century, 95 percent of the ancient forest was logged at least once. The places that survived were either too difficult to get to, beloved by some family who made sure they were not logged, or purchased by groups like Save the Redwoods League. The extinction threat in the redwoods is very real, and species including the endangered marbled murreletnorthern spotted owl and wild coho salmon live with it daily.

Today across much of the landscape, the redwood forest is slowly recovering. This is happening in parks and reserves – places set aside for their natural qualities. For instance, atMill Creek the League and our conservation partners are 10 years into an ambitious program torestore wildness to this 25,000-acre former tree farm by removing roads and giving young forests a helping hand. And recovery is also underway on lands owned by the timber companies. Yes they still log – after all, most of us love wood, and personally I prefer to know that it comes from a responsibly managed forest that I can go and see, rather than some unknown far-off land. But California’s timber companies have fundamentally changed the way they log – for the better – and are also working to remove the scars from former bad practices, for instance by restoring salmon spawning habitat formerly blocked by culverts.

If we are to provide a lifeboat for these species to make it through the coming extinction threat, it is critical that we work together across whole landscapes. We can no longer separate the parks from the timberlands and think of them separately. After all, birds and fish can’t read our maps and make little distinction between a young forest in park and a young forest in timberland. If the past 100 years of redwood conservation have been defined by conflict and forest degradation, I am optimistic that the next 100 years will be defined by collaboration andrecovery. You can learn more about my outlook by reading the keynote I gave last year at the League-sponsored science symposium, The Coast Redwood Forests in a Changing California.

[first published on “Giant Thoughts,” Save the Redwoods League, July 7, 2012]