It's the largest living thing that we know of. —Paul C. Rogers of Utah State University
FISHLAKE NATIONAL FOREST — Utah's oldest and largest resident is in declining health and deep trouble, just as his bulk and longevity are attaining more fame around the world.
"It's a tough situation without a really easy solution," said biologist Paul C. Rogers of Utah State University.
Pando — a grove of aspen trees near Fish Lake — was identified years ago as the world's largest living thing. Scientists believe nearly 50,000 trees are genetically identical. Most, if not all, of the trees are believed to be connected at the roots underground and form what is essentially one huge plant covering more than 100 acres.
"It's the largest living thing that we know of," Rogers said. "And I have to say that clearly: that we know of, that are genetically identical."
Scientists gave the stand of aspens the name Pando, Latin for "I spread." And, yes, Pando is a he; aspens come in two sexes and Pando is "definitely male," Rogers said.
Many people — particularly fishermen — have driven their vehicles right through Pando over the years without realizing they are within the world's oldest living thing. A paved highway, state Route 25, plunges right through Pando as it approaches Fish Lake. There's even a campground surrounded by Pando's beauty.
Now the giant plant is also gaining fame as one of the oldest organisms on Earth. A spectacular new coffee-table book celebrates Pando for the vast span of time that he has lived.
"Pando is one of my favorites and one of many people's favorites," said Rachel Sussman, author of "The Oldest Living Things In The World."
No one really knows how long Pando has been growing. Sussman accepts one scientist's estimate of 80,000 years. Although the estimate is based on the average spread rate of aspen clones, Rogers said it could be wrong. "I think it's not much better than a guess," he said.
Nevertheless, Sussman's book ranks Pando as the third oldest living thing on Earth. A bed of interconnected sea-grass in the Mediterranean Sea is believed to be about 100,000 years old; a genetically identical colony of bacteria in Siberia may have lived for 700,000 years.
"I think (Pando) captures our imagination," Sussman said. "For one thing, just being so mind-blowing that an organism could live that long. It's also incredibly beautiful."
She calls her new book of photos and essays a mixture of art and science, featuring organisms more than 2,000 years old. "To be able to connect to these organisms that have been alive and witnessed millennia of growth and change in the world is something really remarkable."
Pando may have survived many millennia before man's arrival, living through numerous ups and downs of climate, but he's evidently struggling to survive in the modern age. He's dying, one tree at a time.
"I'm not finding any young trees at all here," Rogers said as he conducted a biological survey deep inside Pando's far-flung forest. "There should be a lot of sprouts coming up."
Aspen clones spread by creating new sprouts that emerge from the ground and become new tree-trunks. The new trees help the clone maintain its health through the centuries by replacing trunks that age out and die. But in the last few years, many old trees have fallen and few young trees have replaced them. Pando is now mostly old trees, waiting to die.
Rogers believes the finger of blame points to human activity. "If something's been around a very long time and is very large and it's suddenly falling apart," Rogers said, "it probably points back to us."
The prime suspects are grazing cattle, foraging wildlife, competing vegetation and unnatural suppression of fire, all of which may have interfered with the growth of sprouts.
The Forest Service has fenced off portions of Pando in an effort to figure out what's happening.
"We've built this fence to secure the area from deer and cattle," said Kurtis Robins, district ranger for the Fishlake National Forest. He said ranchers who have grazing permits in the area have been cooperative in helping the U.S. Forest Service come to grips with the problem.
Drought and disease are also possible culprits. Many of Pando's trees have blackened portions resembling scorch marks that are actually a symptom of disease.
"It's a fungus type of disease," Robins said.
The Forest Service is also experimenting with controlled burns and with mechanical removal of vegetation to determine whether competition from other plants is partly to blame.
One noteworthy — but controversial — action by the Forest Service years ago is also being studied for clues. In 1992, a large section of Pando was clear-cut. That area has now grown back with densely packed juvenile aspens.
Forest Service officials hope that whatever they learn about preserving Pando can be applied to other aspen groves as well. After all, the Quaking Aspen officially became the state tree of Utah just a few weeks ago.
A lot of Pando lovers believe that if organisms can survive tens of thousands of years, they ought to be able to survive the age of humans. Sussman's book calls for a higher-level of protection by UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.
"You know, I think of all these oldest living organisms as symbols of something that really transcends the things that divide us," Sussman said. "They really deserve our care and protection."