World’s Largest Tree Being Eaten Alive

What and where is it?

Located in the Wasatch Mountains on Utah Route 25 lives a stand of quaking aspens, Utah’s state tree.  Nicknamed Pando (Latin for I spread), the aspens have called the Fishlake National Forest home for around 14,000 years. That makes it one of the oldest living organisms on earth. With an estimated 47,000 trees spreading over 106 acres, Pando weighs in at approximately 13 million pounds. 

Why is its survival threatened?

To answer that we need to know how Pando became so large.  Biologists identify aspen groves as a clonal colony. That means they multiply through vegetative reproduction over a very long time. The original tree sends out roots below ground running horizontally that eventually send up sprouts for new trees.  This process is known as suckering. These, in turn, send out individual roots that sprout as well, and so on. 

These small new trees produce tender leaves, and therein lies the problem. The mule deer that inhabit the area love to munch on those tender leaves and shoots. This nibbling kills the new sprouts thereby preventing them from spreading out new roots. To deter herbivory the Forest Service fenced off five acres to keep the deer out. However, with no wolf or other natural predators and 101 acres open, the deer seem not to care.

Not only are mule deer a threat. Cattle graze in the same area feeding on those same tender shoots. Grazing Permits are issued by the National Forest Service for up to ten years.

Is grazing the only threat? 

No. Control of grazing permits and deer population will not solve threats to Pando. As its description implies a clonal colony is composed of genetically identical trees. This means that they are all susceptible to the same viruses, bacteria, and fungi. Therefore, if one gets it, all are at risk. 

Also, Aspens need fire. The fire controls the growth of the area’s pine. Left to grow the ponderosa pine can overshadow the aspen. Aspen is intolerant to shade and will die out without plenty of sunshine. 

Lastly, development of the area brought in two marinas, lodging units, restaurants and campgrounds. These come with needed infrastructure. Fish Lake, the largest natural mountain lake in Utah, offers trophy fishing, bird watching, hiking and biking. Like you, I enjoy all of these activities. They attract me to the outdoors. I certainly do not wish them to go away.

What does the future hold.

Whether or not Pando survives for another 14,000 years depends on conservation efforts. According to Dr. Paul C. Rogers a biogeographer, forest ecologist, and Director of the Western Aspen Alliance at Utah State University “Cessation of successful reproduction will eventually result in a decline in the aspen stand as a whole, decreased moisture previously found in a shaded understory, declining ability to sustain numerous plant species, and eventually a lack of diverse nutrient resources for birds, mammals, and invertebrates. This is very similar to the trend we are witnessing at Pando now!”

 Controlled burns by the Forest Service can keep the pine growth in check. Fencing off a larger area may keep out mule deer. The reintroduction of gray wolves to increase predation comes with mixed support among Utahns.

Is there hope for Pando?

Yes. There is hope thanks to the efforts of the Friends of Pando . This volunteer, not-for-profit organization founded in 2019 provides support and education to preserve this truly natural resource.

The year of 2022 will bring several programs to save Pando. The group will hire a full-time agent to tend to the tree’s life.  A string of trail monitoring stations will track human activity. With over 300,000 visitors annually, Friends will collect impact data on usage.

No doubt that Pando is a national natural treasure. If you plan on visiting the Pando, you can contribute to its preservation in any number of ways.. Contact the Friends for information.

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