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”), it’s a grove of individual male quaking aspens (Populus tremuloides) — a single organism with identical genetic markers and, it’s assumed, a massive underground root system.
The colony has 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, earning it the “world’s largest organism by weight” title.
Why is Pando’s survival threatened?
To answer that we need to know how Pando became so large. Aspen groves multiply by sending out roots that run horizontally. These eventually send up sprouts for new trees. The new trees, in turn, send out individual roots that sprout as well, and so on. The trunks die individually and are replaced by new stems growing from their roots.
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, preventing them from spreading out new roots.
What does the future hold?
That is the question for Friends of Pando. This volunteer, not-for-profit organization founded in 2019 provides support and education to preserve this truly natural resource. The year 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 more than 300,000 visitors annually, Friends will collect impact data on usage.
Are the deer the only threat to Pando?
No. Even with the deer population controlled, other issues threaten Pando. Because they are so closely linked, all are susceptible to the same viruses, bacteria, and fungi. If one gets it, all are at risk.
Also, Aspens need fire to control the growth of the area’s pine. Left to grow, the ponderosa pine can overshadow the young sprouts. Aspens are intolerant to shade and will die out without plenty of sunshine.
Lastly, the development of the area brought in two marinas, lodging units, restaurants, campgrounds, and 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 that attract me to the outdoors. I certainly do not wish them to go away.
What can you do?
Whether or not Pando survives for another 14,000 years depends on conservation efforts. If you plan on visiting the Pando, you can contribute to its preservation in any number of ways. Contact the Friends for information.
For an in-depth review of Pando, visit my essay at WadeVillage.