Tree hunter seeks to preserve tree's DNA

You would have thought Michael Taylor had just struck gold.

In a way, the big-tree hunter had — in the form of two pine scions he was holding. He had just picked them up near the base of the world's tallest-known ponderosa pine.

"I'm going to try to clone it," exclaimed Taylor, who has a permit to collect such specimens on national forestland.

"This is a good time to collect," he added. "You want to get it when it is dormant."

The clumps of green needles had apparently snapped off during a recent storm. The first major limbs on the pine are about 160 feet above the ground, according to a laser range finder.

Taylor, who has been searching for big trees for a quarter of a century, works for the nonprofit Archangel Ancient Tree Archive, based in Traverse City, Mich., whose goal is to genetically archive the greatest trees on the planet. He describes himself as a tree hunter who helps find and propagate giant trees, which entails taking a cutting and coaxing roots out of it, he said.

"This new tree will have the exact same DNA as the champion specimen," he said. "Some tree species don't root by taking cuttings, so a root graft or tissue-culture technique is needed to preserve the ancient DNA."

Once a "mother plant" is created, the DNA can be mass-produced for reforestation purposes, he said.

"There is a reason some trees become giants," he said. "It's not just the environment. It's because they may have gigantism or extreme height characteristics in their DNA."

In addition to helping preserve a unique species, the work is just plain fun, Taylor indicated.

"My job is to go out and look for the biggest trees," he said. "It's like a treasure hunt. The extremes of anything, to me, in the natural world has always been fascinating — the largest, tallest, smallest."

In this case, he figures he and Mario Vaden have found the tallest pine in the world.

For a list of tall trees in the West, check out Taylor's website at www.landmarktrees.net.

For a list of giant conifers in the Pacific Northwest, go to www.conifers.org.

For giant trees east of the Mississippi River, see The Eastern Native Tree Society website at www.nativetreesociety.org.

Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 541-776-4496 or e-mail him at pfattig@mailtribune.com.

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