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The History of the Pando Tree

The History of Land Management in Pando

Written and Collated by Nick Mustoe

Edited by Friends of Pando

Updated: July 2021

Pando and the greater Fish Lake Basin where it is found became part of the Forest Reserve system by presidential proclamation from William McKinley on February 10th, 1899. Pando’s history since that time has, in part, been linked to this connection to what became Fishlake National Forest.

Forest Reserves were transitioned to National Forests around 1897. These designations in Utah were primarily established at the requests of local citizens to protect watersheds, provide a sustainable timber supply, and manage grazing of domestic livestock. Grazing around Fish Lake then was a mix of sheep and cattle. Small-scale sawmills existed in the valley towns west and south of Fish Lake.

Image of the Presidential Proclamation for Fishlake

Management of the Forest, and in turn Pando, expanded to encompass more objectives with the passage of the Multiple Use-Sustained Yield Act of 1960. This act of Congress broadened the mission of the Forest Service by placing timber, range, water, recreation, and wildlife on equal terms to best meet the needs of the American people. It is around this time that summer residences were built along the shore of Fish Lake and on the edge of the yet to be discovered Pando.

National Forest direction was again addressed by Congress in 1976 with the passage of the National Forest Management Act. This act directs the Forest Service to maintain viable populations of vertebrate wildlife found on their lands and to create a Land and Resource Management Plan for each Forest. These forest plans described resource management practices, prioritization of individual uses for given areas, and the suitability of lands for different resource management activities. Under the Fishlake Forest Plan, Pando falls into the management area prioritizing rural and roaded recreational opportunities. Within this designation, visual resources and providing recreational experiences are prioritized.

Coincidentally, this is the same year that Jerry Kemperman and Burton Barnes made the public and the Fishlake National Forest aware of two large clones in the Fish Lake Basin. It was an attempt to study aspen across the Western United States that the two happened to be driving along Highway 25, a highway that to this day bisects Pando. Their publication describes two large aspen clones. One of which was 24 acres and the other, later to be named Pando, was estimated at 106 acres in size. Kemperman and Barnes used leaf, bark, and stem characteristics to determine the clone size. Tantalizingly, the authors make a passing mention to larger clones, perhaps as large as 200 acres, that they observed in the vicinity. To date, the location of this larger than Pando aspen clone is unknown.

The Forest conducted a coppice cut within Pando in 1987 and again in 1988. These cuts were one to two acres in size. The intent of the harvests was to promote aspen regeneration and provide firewood to the Wayne County community, which makes extensive use of firewood for heating. It was believed by managers at the time that animals would not eat the regenerating aspen. In the fall of 1988, there were abundant aspen sprouts in both areas. Another fifteen acres were coppiced in the spring of 1992.

Public response to the highly visible coppice cuts came to a head on May 6, 1992 with an editorial published in the Richfield Reaper. The article read in part, “There’s more to the forest than the trees. This week trees on one of the world’s oldest known grove of quaking aspen trees were cut down by the U. S. Forest Service in the Fishlake National Forest.” In response to public concern, the Forest chose to build an eight-foot fence around the fifteen-acre harvest area in the fall of 1992.

Image of clear cutting of Pando - History of Land Management in Pando

Unfortunately, the window to fence and protect the two smaller cuts had passed as little regeneration in those areas persisted. Allen Henningson, a Forest Silviculurist during this time, reported that the sprouts were heavily browsed by deer. The fenced area did successfully regenerate and remains one of the highest concentrations of young aspen in the Pando clone.

Pando received its name in the popular press in October 1993 with the publication of Michael C. Grant’s Discover Magazine article entitled The Trembling Giant. Grant, in addition to providing the moniker, was also the first to draw attention to the clone’s large size and weight making it one of the world’s largest organisms. Grant’s efforts in publicizing the clone and a variety of articles about the clone at this time also resulted in the U.S. Postal Service issuing a Pando stamp in May of 2006 as part of a 40-stamp set entitled “Wonders of America.”

Validation for Pando’s genetic identity came in 2008 with the work of Jennifer DeWoody and others. DNA isolated from leaves and cambium confirmed an almost identical size for Pando as that proposed by Kerperman and Barnes. The genetic certainty that Pando was identical provided a crucial validation to its status as one of the world’s largest organisms. Genetic research on aspen clones remains rare to this day, perhaps another one of Pando’s notable titles as one of only a handful of wild aspen clones to have its size confirmed by DNA evidence.

In 2011, Bob Campbell – Forest Ecologist for the Fishlake National Forest – and Utah State University’s Paul Rogers worked together to bring about the Pando Clone Restoration Project with the aim to fence 67 acres of Pando and study aspen regeneration resulting from four restoration treatments. These were burning the understory of common juniper, shrub removal, and selective cutting of overstory trees to elicit growth promoter response. The Forest conducted these test treatments in 2014. Some aspen ecologists at the time believed that the Pando clone might already have too depleted of a root system to respond and send up new sprouts, despite prolific sprouting responses to the previous coppice cuts. There has been extensive sprouting within the fenced areas following treatment. A publication by Paul Rogers and Jody Gale in 2017 confirmed this and showed that there was no statistical difference in number of aspen sprouts resulting from any of the treatment methods and the effect of fencing alone.

Pando and the Fishlake National Forest have continued to host a variety of researchers, non-governmental organizations, and interested members of the public at Pando each year. The past few years has seen the return of a Los Angeles based community group seeking inspiration from the larger than life Pando.

Recreation staff on the Forest have reported a noticeable uptick in visitors making a trip to the Fish Lake Basin specifically to visit the clone. The Fishlake National Forest has developed an interpretive plan for Pando, placed “Entering the Pando Aspen Clone” signs on both ends of where Highway 25 crosses Pando, and produced an informational brochure to provide forest visitors details about the clone. In 2019, the Forest, volunteers, and the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources worked together to install wildlife but not human-proof gates to the fenced area, allowing easier access to this portion of the clone. Camping on the edge of the Pando clone at Dr. Creek Campground remains popular with a variety of visitors to the basin.

Further fencing of Pando as well as closing a Forest Service road through Pando are among the options for future management being considered by the Fishlake National Forest. A related master plan for managing recreation and infrastructure in the Fish Lake Basin is also in the early phases Any changes in the management of the clone will be open to public comment and consideration.

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