'Largest Living Thing,' an 80,000-year-old Utah Forest, Is Dying. It’s Time for Us to Act to Save It

Experts: Pradeep Banerjee

The 'largest living thing' on Earth is dying due to reckless human interference, scientists have revealed.

Pando (Latin for "I spread out" ), the "Trembling Giant," as it is popularly known, is a sprawling carpet of vibrant green-yellow quaking aspens connected by one sprawling root system that occupies more than 100 acres outside the Fishlake National Forest in Utah. This ancient marvel of nature is thousands of years Although scientists don't exactly know how old this ancient marvel is, most estimates put its age to be approximately 80,000 years.

It got its nickname because of the leaves which stir easily even in the gentlest of breeze and produce a fluttering sound with only the slightest provocation. The effect of this in Pando, multiplied over the tens of thousands of trees and a hundred acres, can be unnerving, giving a real sense of life to this ancient, trembling giant.

However, in recent years a tragedy has quietly been unfolding. This beacon symbolizing the resilience of life is ultimately dying. While the death of mature stems of Pando because of eternal problems of pests and drought is a routine affair, the regenerative roots of the organism that are responsible for Pando’s resilience are also under attack now. And as always, we humans, particularly Americans are to blame for it.  

Paul Rogers, an adjunct professor at Utah State University and the Director of the Western Aspen Alliance reported a marked absence of juvenile and young stems to replace the older trunks, blaming overgrazing by deer and elk. “Without new growth, to replace the old, the Trembling Giant is vulnerable to a catastrophic, sudden withering and shrinking”. Rogers confessed, “It’s slipping away very quickly.” 

"This all relates back to human decisions," said Rogers.

"Even though wildlife are involved, humans govern the number and movement of animals."

Despite the best of their efforts, many scientists think that this natural wonder may not survive a few more decades of human interference.

Over the years, as humans made inroads towards the forest, the forest cover has gradually thinned. Also, frequent drought-like conditions and the intrusion of hungry deer into the forest have worsened matters.

"While several human alterations to this forest have taken place in recent decades, it is the lack of simultaneous herbivore regulation that has caused this stand's degeneration," a study conducted to assess the situation said.

“After significant investment in protecting the iconic Pando clone, we were disappointed in this result,” said Professor Rogers.

At the beginning, efforts to protect the forest from deer using fencing and allowing young shoots to grow showed some promise. 

However, when these methods were expanded to cover a much larger area they failed to prevent the animals from getting in. Hinting at obvious human involvement, professor Rogers sarcastically said that deer appeared to be finding ways to either enter through weak points or somehow hopping the eight-foot barrier.

“In addition to ecological values, Pando serves as a symbol of nature-human connectedness and a harbinger of broader species losses. Here, regionally, and indeed internationally, aspen forests support great biodiversity,” he said.

“It would be a shame to witness the significant reduction of this iconic forest when reversing this decline is realizable, should we demonstrate the will to do so.”

"We can no longer manage wildlife and forests separately," he says. "Typically, state governments regulate animals and the federal government regulates the forests or vegetation."

The solution, according to Rogers, is in aligning plant and animal conservation efforts in a way that they work together harmoniously.

Preserving the Pando isn't just important because of its age and size — the forest is also an example of how a whole ecosystem can blossom dependent on just a few species.

"Aspen forests in general, including the Pando forest, support high levels of biodiversity," says Rogers. In this instance, the quaking aspen is considered a "keystone species" — a species upon which others depend.

"It has a cascading effect on other species, both plants, and animals. If you remove one species, others will be limited as well."

Not all is grim, there's some good news too. The aspens are a resilient and hardy organism, Rogers says, and with the right actions, the Pando could flourish once again.

But this wish can come true if we the nature-loving citizens of America intervene. Leaving it on the goodwill of the government and god will certainly bring doom. Let’s not forget the sayings of the English political theorist Algernon Sidney: “God helps those who help themselves.”


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