Living with a Giant – Pt. IV

Pando is a single tree, albeit a tree that is a forest of growing international reputation. Five or six species of aspen (upland Populus) reach around the entire northern hemisphere between about 30°-65° north latitude. They harbor vast amounts of biodiversity. As goes aspen, so goes dependent plants and animals; a cascading effect that may be exacerbated by a warming climate. Can the lessons learned – and answers derived – at Pando shine a light on global-scale aspen conservation?

The fourth and last part of Paul C. Rogers’ Pando series is about the importance of taking the first step:

Why they are slowly slaying this giant

Environmental stewards have a long history of treating the symptoms while avoiding the difficult cures. And often, such as here, there’s good reason for that, frustrating as it may be. Thorny issues, particularly those with significant social components, often contain short-term easy fixes, with long-term difficult solutions left unattended. These so-called “messy problems” are actually quite common, though it is somewhat rare that they occur in a very contained geography, such as that of the Pando clone. This comprehensible scale may provide an advantage. Based on the previous discussion, it is clear that there are too many mule deer and cattle for the current situation at Pando. Cattle are there for only a short time. Deer stay much longer and do appear to be overabundant based on their outsized impact. But it is the combined browsing habits of these two animals that are slowly slaying this giant.

Pando Forest Animals
PHO­TO: (C) PAUL C. ROGERS; LAN­CE ODITT - STU­DIO 47.60 NORTH

Pando enters triage

To date, we have successfully fenced only a small portion of this famous grove near Fish Lake, Utah. A significant investment in fencing out deer above the highway is so far proving futile: our data clearly show the animals are finding ways to get in and eat all the new growth. With additional resources we can likely fortify entry points and begin healing another section of Pando. Still, if fencing is going to be our prime strategy for recovery (a.k.a., the easy fix) more than half the clone remains unprotected. Broader questions persist, however: 1) Do we really want a fenced forest? 2) Will fencing provide the long-term solution we desire (i.e., a self-sustaining Pando)? Ideally, we wish to facilitate ecosystem balance where moderate browsing by animals allows a portion of the aspen regrowth to thrive and one day replace dying older trees. Fencing is triage for Pando to prevent large herbivores from browsing. This promotes maximum regeneration for a short period with the intention of moving the forest to a more resilient state.

Pando Fence Trees Organism
PHO­TO: (C) PAUL C. ROGERS; LAN­CE ODITT - STU­DIO 47.60 NORTH

“It will be complex, messy, and time consuming”

The more difficult solution requires working with people. In the United States interest groups, such as hunters and livestock growers and protectionists, have significant influence on politicians and government agencies that implement policy. Near Pando, there are also private vacation homes and a seasonal tourist industry. All of these groups have a stake in which methods or restrictions will be instigated to achieve desired outcomes. In particular, actions to regulate wild and domestic animal numbers can sometimes take years to work out with the respective bureaucracies. For example, a proposal to reduce mule deer numbers at Pando requires that State-employed sharp shooters must be approved by several of the above parties, plus a State wildlife commission. Similarly, changing grazing use agreements for cattle would have to be negotiated at several levels involving the federal Forest Service and livestock growers before actual changes could be enacted. If all of this sounds futile, it really isn’t. But it will be complex, messy, and time consuming, and it will certainly never happen if someone doesn’t take the first step.

All of this fuss for a single tree, albeit a tree that is a forest of growing international reputation. These aspen forests have a global reach. Five or six species of aspen (upland Populus) reach around the entire northern hemisphere between about 30°-65° north latitude. Crucial to their sustaining presence is the fact that they harbor disproportional amounts of biodiversity. As goes aspen, so goes dependent plants and animals; a cascading effect that may be exacerbated by a warming climate. Can the lessons learned at Pando shine a light on global-scale aspen conservation?

Pando Sapling Quaking Forest Portrait
PHO­TO: (C) PAUL C. ROGERS; LAN­CE ODITT - STU­DIO 47.60 NORTH

“Do we have the will?”

While some questions remain unanswered for now, we do have a strong conception of Pando’s present plight. Mature trees, some nearing 30 meters in height and a half meter in diameter, are succumbing to age-related mortality; their bones litter the forest floor. Meanwhile, generations of this aspen community—normally represented by diverse tree sizes and heights—are nearly absent. With this skewed demography, we’re left asking ourselves, do we have the will as a society to replace the missing age groups of Pando?

We may imagine Pando as being a mirror; a reflection of our larger engagement with the planet we depend on. In our modern world, we aspire to be ecologically and adaptively attuned to our surroundings: meaning that when systems appear to be unraveling, course corrections will be implemented and checkpoints put in place. While we know we have difficult issues to tackle at Pando, tangible actions can be taken now to give this magnificent being some breathing space.

Inspired by Pando

Toward this end, you may consider a visit to Pando or a special forest near you. Earth’s generosity in sharing lessons such as Pando’s long and large existence benefit us every day. This not only takes the form of wonder and visual pleasure. Practical design elements such as biomimicry are being “harvested” by humans time and again. If we are to successfully live as an ecologically adapted civilization, the inspiration of Pando is there for the taking.

Author: Dr. Paul C. Rogers is Director of the Western Aspen Alliance, Ecology Center Associate, and Adjunct Associate Professor, Wildland Resources Department, Utah State University.

|| The author waived his salary for the text. topos donates the amount to the Western Aspen Alliance to contribute to the preservation of Pando.
|| Maybe you also consider a donation to help save Pando and further our knowledge of aspen ecosystems worldwide: support Pando here.

First part of the Pando series.
Second part.
Third part.

Paul C. Rogers has published a compact version of his text in the topos 103 “Trees” – have a look.