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The Science of the Pando Tree

Aspen's Role on the World Stage

Paul C. Rogers | Director | Western Aspen Alliance

June 2021

Many have imagined Pando, the giant aspen clone of central Utah, to mirror human’s inability to live cooperatively with Earth at-large. Certainly, many elements—both good and bad—found at Pando are reflected in aspen systems globally. Six species of aspen wrap the northern hemisphere of our planet. These aspens collectively form a supercontinent of forest communities supporting elevated levels of biodiversity. Because they are relatively common we may overlook their value. Whether sustained growth of a single aspen clone or infinite forests stretching across vast landmasses, intricate linkages between plants and animals enable outsized diversity.

As an aspen ecologist, I recently worked with scientists from nine countries to publish the first-ever world compilation of conditions in aspen ecosystems. This network of researchers strives to bring awareness and conservation ecology to a global aspen community. Under the banner of “mega conservation,” we proposed a strategy of keystone community conservation that contrasts with conventional single-species preservation. Where traditional world conservation approaches single out lone charismatic species (e.g., pandas, rhinos, tigers, apes) and invest heavily in their stabilization, we suggest preserving common, but valuable, biodiversity enclaves as a means of saving many more species which rely on such systems. The aspen forests of the world meet this definition and, for various reasons, are facing human-induced declines

Aspens role on the world stage 2

A species like aspen, fairly common, is supporting myriad species and in many cases is faltering under the of short-term interests. In Scandinavia, abundant moose populations devour aspen regeneration just as deer have done to Pando. In much of Asia aspen as is considered undesirable; harvest of fast-growing conifers across this region brings more immediate returns. Tar sands in Canada, resort development in the U.S., or warming climates and extended droughts everywhere. Similar results abound: accompanying plants and animals follow aspen’s declining trend. This worldwide assault on biodiversity under an aspen canopy is hiding in plain sight. Though aspen is not rare, like that prominent poster-child of nature protection the panda bear, it does support a much wider array of species. Where would you place your protection dollar?

An interesting finding from our global exploration of aspen ecology and management was that regions emphasized different avenues of research, as wells as uses for aspen forests. In the western U.S. and Scandinavia, land managers stress habitat values, while in central Europe there is little valuation, and in Russia there is often a desire to reduce aspen cover. Similarly, scientific priorities range from growth and production, to genetic investigations, to community and conservation projects. This world look at aspen suggests that a collaborative approach may be beneficial to aspen’s future in the sense that shared knowledge will allow us to compare strategies where commonalities among species are found and highlight unique species characteristics also, where appropriate.

Aspens role on the world stage

The current climate crisis amplifies the assault on aspen as keystone systems. Human contributions to a warming planet decrease habitat connectivity across broad landscapes, biodiverse communities, and socio-political boundaries. Drought-stressed aspen are more susceptible to stem diseases, which in turn set off vigorous regeneration episodes. Landscapes subject to prolonged seasonal warming, such as more snow-free days, will place elevate pressure from ungulate populations to browse juvenile aspen. Cessation of successful reproduction will eventually result in a decline in the aspen stand as a whole, decreased moisture previously found in a shaded understory, declining ability to sustain numerous plant species, and eventually a lack of diverse nutrient resources for birds, mammals, and invertebrates. This is very similar to the trend we are witnessing at Pando now!  Diminishing plant cover in uncommonly rich systems, multiplied across the world, may lead to regional species collapse. People are central to these scenarios through are immediate choices regarding wildlife and forest management, as well as indirectly via carbon contributions to the atmosphere. Humans can disrupt or sustain vital ties.

Aspens role on the world stage
Eurasian aspen (Populus tremula) in the southern Ural Mountains, Russia (Photo: Natalya Ivanova, Russian Academy of Sciences)

Some have proposed that giant clones and world aspen networks provide a model for healthy, diverse, social relations. Critical linkages, whether climate to biosphere, plants to animals, or humans to forests, are often overlooked in societies focused on individual achievements. Perhaps these distinctions between individuals and communities are artificial, however. What if, like in an aspen clone or an interconnected global aspen expanse, the individual is also a community? A superorganism. Cascading connections with known and unknown ramifications. Expanding roots may link different beliefs, ages, species, or cultures together. Aspen’s world reach may be ecological and symbolic if we open our eyes to possibility! 

About the Author

Paul Rogers Director Western aspen alliance

Paul C. Rogers is a biogeographer, forest ecologist, and Director of the Western Aspen Alliance at Utah State University. Dr. Rogers was a Visiting Fellow at the University of Queensland, Australia (2014) and was awarded a Fulbright Specialist scholarship to Mendel University, Czech Republic (2017).  Paul is the leading researcher on the Pando aspen clone. Paul’s work on aspen ecology over the last 20 years has brought together a broad collective of scientists from around the world to develop novel research programs and management frameworks to promote understanding of aspen ecology and reveal the mysteries of the recently discovered Pando. Donations made to Paul’s organization, the Western Aspen Alliance (WAA), are tax-deductible and will go directly to restoring the Pando tree and monitoring and innovating research methods to better understand it. 

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