LOGAN, Utah (ABC4) – Pando is considered the world’s largest living organism, and it lives in Utah. It may be thousands of years old, but after a recent study, scientists say that the organism is dying. Human interference may be to blame.
Aspen trees are common in Utah. In fact, they’re common across North America. However, in Sevier County, there is a forest of Aspens that spans more than 100 acres and is made up of about 40,000 trees. This Aspen stand is unique.
“Pando is a giant aspen clone, and a clone is a genetically identical set of trees because the trees are connected underground by their root system,” Paul Rogers told ABC4. Rogers is an adjunct professor in the environment and society department at the S.J. and Jessie E. Quinney College of Natural Resources at Utah State University.
The forest, also known as Pando, is basically one giant tree. If you pulled it out of the ground, roots and all, it would weigh about 13 million pounds. Its weight makes it the largest living organism on the planet.
While it has survived, potentially, for thousands of years, it’s falling to pieces. “The actions that we’ve taken over time are actually causing this forest to diverge into, sort of, three different forests.”
Paul Rogers leads the current research on Pando’s health. Under his direction, field technicians recently spent a month in the forest measuring and mapping the new Aspen growth. This is something that has been done every few years or so since scientists first began to worry about Pando’s health a few decades ago.
Rogers explained that hunting limits on deer (the forest is a protected area and deer may be gathering there more often to avoid hunters), cattle grazing, and even the placement of fencing all create conditions that prevent new growth from sprouting and growing to maturity.
The areas that are being stunted are dying, thus splitting the mighty organism into smaller, separate forests.
“It’s just an amazing, sweet experience. It’s a species worth working for,” Etta Crowley stated.
Crowley was one of the field technicians to spend a month measuring and mapping Pando’s new growth. She described her experience as something almost magical. She couldn’t quite explain why but noted that being out in Pando is like being in a cradle. Below her feet, a massive root system expanded in all directions and connected all the Aspens the eye could see. Above her, a canopy of bright green and silver lives shimmered in the slightest breeze. Around her, new growth was fighting to survive. She said being in the forest for such an extended period of time made her feel like she was part of Pando. Part of something greater.
“It also is a pioneer species, so it sets up the environment from the start of a disturbance, and then it allows other species to grow in the area and supports a mass of diversity of plants and animals,” Crowley explained. While the Aspen may be a common tree, it plays a crucial role in cradling the growth of other plant species until they reach maturity. These plants may be rarer than the Aspen and only grow in specific regions of North America, but they depend on the Aspen to create a nursery to encourage their growth.
That is just the first reason scientists want to save Pando. Rogers told ABC4 that by focusing on Pando and working to reverse its decline, it may also help conservationists across the world learn how they too can act to improve the condition of Aspen stands that are also in decline.
Rogers said it’s also a symbol of pride to be the steward of the world’s largest living organism. However, if it dies, or declines, that pride may turn to shame. He added: “You might say that we’d have a little ecological egg on our face. So, it’s incumbent on us as humans if we’ve caused some of this to help develop the fix.”
Rogers emphasized that there is no one person or organization that is responsible for the decline of Pando. Rather, it falls on all of us. To fix the issue, he said, agencies from the federal, state and local levels will have to come together to create new procedures to address the aforementioned causes of Pando’s decline.