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What is Pando?

Pando is the world's largest organism and tree...

map showing pandos land mass

In a high mountain basin in central Utah stands the world’s largest tree, Pando, a quaking aspen clone comprised of over 40,000 stems. Stems which appear to us as individual trees, but in fact, are one part of a genetically identical tree that spreads out over 106 acres via a massive root system. Despite a history spanning thousands of years, we have only been aware of this amazing organism for a short time. Its discovery in 1976 and verification in 2008 sparked a wave of scientific research and countless headlines. A tree for every season of wonder, Pando not only expands our sense of what a tree can be, but also bears witness to the possibilities and marvels of Utah’s heartlands and the need to understand and preserve them so they may be enjoyed for generations to come.

aerial view of Pando's land mass
Aerial view shows 80% of Pando's 106 acres.

Born into a Land Carved by Fire and Ice

Born to a land of glaciers, earthquakes, volcanism and wildfires,  Pando’s home is a case study in the dynamics of life on the boundary between the Basin and Range and Colorado Plateau ecological provinces. Although there is no way to reliably test the age of Pando, most scientist agree that it could not be any older than 12,000 years old, when weather patterns fed by ice age climate currents started to change and the earth began to warm.

Quaking Aspen like Pando, thrive in disturbed lands; the places natural forces like glaciers, volcanoes,earthquakes, landslides, floods or fire re-shape the land. Although we still have much to learn about the land Pando calls home, it is arguable that the variety of dynamic forces in the Fishlake Basin have played a supportive role in Pando’s establishment and the trees’ dominance over the land.

fishlake geologic map
Geologic Map of Fishlake Basin in Utah. Inset, an illustration of a Graben shows forces that continue to shape the land today.

A Pioneer of Nature's Imagination

The idea of a tree that spans across 106 acres doesn’t fit with our common-sense view of what trees are or, can be. Pando is a tree that transcends nearly every concept of trees and natural classifications we have today. Pando is simultaneously the heaviest tree, the largest tree by land mass, the largest quaking aspen (Populus tremuloides) and the largest plant. A masterpiece of botanical imagination, how Pando came to be is even more improbable than challenge of classifying it.

Pando Tree at Night
The Pando Tree soaks in Moonlight in late Summer ( Photo: Lance Oditt)

CARRIED ON THE WINDS OF CHANGE…
On one of the first warm spring days in thousands of years after the last ice age, a single Aspen seed floating 9,000 feet in the sky came to rest on the southeastern edge of the Fishlake Basin. A land littered with massive volcanic boulders, split apart along an active fault line, carved by glaciers, littered with mineral rich glacial till and shaped by landslides and torrential snow melts that continue to this day.

monroe mountain vist
A wintry vista on Monroe Mountain gives us an idea of what the land the Pando Seed sat down in may have looked like (Photo: Lance Oditt)

…INTO A WILDERNESS RIPE WITH POSSIBILITIES
What would appear to be a wasteland to the untrained eye, made for a perfect home for the Pando seed. A location along the steep side of a spreading fault zone that provides water drainage to the lake below and a barren landscape with rich soil laid down by glaciers. A place where the light hungry Pando seed would have faced no competition for sunlight. Underground, a tumultuous geologic landscape favors Pando’s sideway moving roots system where other native trees prefer to dig down.



A TREE WITH ROOTS THAT COULD SPAN HALFWAY AROUND THE WORLD

pando root sample
A detailed shot of Pandos' massive underlying root system. Scientist estimate it could span half-way around the world if laid end-to-end! (Photo: Lance Oditt)

Able to grow up to 3 feet per year, if we saw the first branch of Pando, we would think nothing of it.  Those first years, any number of disasters could have destroyed the tree altogether. In fact, for Pando to exists at all means at least one disaster, set the tree on a new course that created the tree have today. As a male tree, Pando only produces pollen so, to advance itself over the land, Pando replicates itself by sending up new stems from its root, a process called suckering. Some time in those first 150 years of Pando’s life, something disrupted the growth hormones underground and hormones in the trunk, creating an imbalance and Pando began to sucker. Although there’s no way to tell what that force was, we do know that was the moment Pando started to self-propagate. The moment Pando began to move across the land and toward us in time. Today,  that one tree has become a lattice-work of roots and stems that a rapid field estimate by Dr. Paul Rogers suggests, could stretch 12,000 miles or, halfway around the world.

40,000 Ways to Survive the High Wilds of Utah

For High Winds, Grow Wide and Stay Flexible
grow wide, stay flexible

Living in a land where winds can reach 60 Mph, Pandos’ stems have two structural features that make life sustainable. First, Pando’s roots spread laterally across the ground where they also tie in with the larger root mass providing added strength to the base of the tree. Second, the the wood of each stem is pliable allowing them to bend without breaking.  Both qualities lend credence to the nickname locals give the tree “ Quakies” for the way the trunks bend and sway in the wind.

Where Fires Rage, Be Less Flammable
fire scare monroe mtn

In Canada, aspen have earned the nickname “asbestos forests” as they have two unique characteristics that make them less fire prone. Aspen store massive quantities of water allowing them to thwart low and medium intensity fires bu simply being less flammable. They also do not create large quantities of flammable volatile oils that make their conifer cousins so fire prone.

Don't Rely on Leaves Alone
lower pando in winter

Living where the growing season is short, and winters are harsh, Pando features another advantage over other trees. It contains chlorophyll in its r bark that allows it to create energy without leaves during the dark, cold winter months. Although this process is no where near as efficient as their leaves, this small energy boost allows them to surge into bloom once temperatures reach 54 degrees for move than 6 days.

When Humans First Roamed Pandos' Home

Consistent with the end of the last Ice Age, archeologists studying the area around Pando have unearthed human artifacts dating to 10,000 years ago during what is called the Paleo-Indian period. From this era, few artifacts survive, but what has been found, suggests a nomadic people who used obsidian points used for hunting Bison and Wooly Mammoth until climate changes and the extinction of those animals marked the time for new life ways to emerge. A period archeologists refer to as the Western Desert Archaic period which lasted from 8,500 BCE to about 2,000 years ago.

An Ancient Mountain Retreat

It was during the Western Desert Archaic era that the Fremont Culture emerged. The term “Fremont” refers not to a singular nor exclusive group of people, but more accurately, a period of change when life ways emerged that came to dominate the region from around 2,000 years ago until about the year 1350. It was the people of the Fremont culture who would begin a 2,000 tradition at Fishlake Basin; retreating to the shores of Utah’s largest freshwater lake to avoid the summer heat, fish, hunt and tend the land.

fremont petroglyph capitol reef
Petroglyphs in nearby Capitol Reef (Photo: Lance Oditt)

Land Management Before European Settlement

In the essay The Problem with Wilderness, environmental historian William Cronon details the problem with the popular notion that America was a god given paradise for the European colonists. A notion that neglects millennia of successful land management practices used by indigenous peoples to sustain themselves and preserve their life ways. New research led by Vachel Carter of University of Utah, offers insights on land management practices used in the Fishlake Basin between the years 500 and 1400. Practices that include the use of fire to shape Fishlake and promote crops that respond to well to fire disturbances like the grain Amaranth. Their primary fuel? Aspen.

Drought, Ice Age, War, Treaties and Diaspora

Carter’s work indicate that the people of the Fremont culture abandoned Fishlake around 1400. Coincidentally, that time marks the end of the Fremont culture and coincides with a tumultuous climatic period starting with drought and ending with the “Little Ice Age” which lasted until 1850. First contact with the people who call these lands home today occurred in 1776 when Spanish Missionaries first met the Paiute as they were collecting seeds in nearby Cedar City.The Old Spanish Trail connecting Santa Fe and Los Angeles brought people and goods through the land until 1864. The time when tensions over land use between indigenous peoples and Europeans sparked the Black Hawk War which lasted until 1867. Once bloodshed stopped, anecdotes suggest only a small group of Paiute continued to use  Fishlake. A land and water use treaty was signed in 1889.

From 1889 until 1954, Paiute bands exercised independence over their affairs until the passage of the Public Law 762. A law that effectively ended Federal accountability to treaties. The rule’s writer,  Senator Arthur V. Watkins, personally worked to disband Utah Paiute communities and succeeded. In 1970, his policies were reversed but it took until 1991 for the Paiute to begin to recover, ratifying a constitution that gave each band a vote with sole authority of its home lands. Today, the local Koosharem Band and all Paiute maintain rights through the 1889 treaty.

robert holt map of indigenous utah
Map of Paiute Band in Utah, Arizona, Nevada and California by Richard Holt

To Gather by the Cool Waters in a Land for All

fishlake from mytoge mtn
View of Fish Lake Basin from Mytoge Mountain (Photo: Lance Oditt)

Fishlake Basin, the land Pando calls home was set aside as a Forest Preserve by President William McKinley on February 10, 1899. Today, Fishlake National Forest covers 1.4 million acres (2,200 M²) and is defined by a discontinuous boundary that spans the Pahvant, Monroe and Tusher mountains. The jewel of Fishlake N.F. is the clear waters of Fish Lake, the largest freshwater lake in Utah located in the Fremont District. High above the hot desert valleys below, the area has been a summer retreat going back 2,000 years.  

A Roads Runs Through It

highway 25 runs through pando in fall
Autumn explodes across Pando along Utah Highway 25 (Photo: Lance Oditt)

Many people who visit Pando for the first time are surprised to learn that Utah Highway 25 cuts through the heart of the giant. A fact that deserves more context. Going back to the 1700’s, the Fishlake Basin hosted one leg of the Old Spanish Trail and provided a cool, high mountain stop with ample water and forage for pack animals carrying goods from Santa Fe to Los Angeles. Today, the road offers a vital route to recreation lands and the historic Fish Lake Lodge, a log building that took four years to build. The road also provides an alternate route to the nearby town of Loa where the Fremont River cuts toward Capitol Reef National Park and begins to make its way toward the Grand Canyon.

A Land of "Many Uses" Faces Many Challenges

Fishlake as we have it today, was mostly developed before Pando’s discovery. Each year, 300,000 people visit the basin and managing the large crowds involves efforts by local, state and federal agencies working to provide water treatment, wildlife management, maintenance, trail and road crews, power and law enforcement. In addition to recreational use, the Fishlake Basin also hosts cattle herds owned by ranchers working under grazing right agreements the Forest Service administers. As it relates to Pando, the Forest Service began work to stimulate regeneration in the 1980’s when research indicated the tree was shrinking. The culprit? Deer and elk who eat Pando’s young stems before they mature. Subsequent research indicated fire, fencing out the deer or, controlling their numbers could promote regeneration. Of these options, hunting is prohibited and fire is controversial so, in 2011, Fishlake started fencing in Pando, about 55 acres to date. Does fencing work? To date, the results are mixed—to be effective, fencing requires dedicated resources and regular maintenance bringing one challenge into relief; staffing. In 2003, two districts were consolidated to what is now called the Fremont District. What was once 500,000 acres managed by 14 people, is now 500,000 acres covered by 7 people. Protecting special trees in America has always involved private/public partnerships; from the Redwoods to Joshua Tree. Local group Friends of Pando aims to build on that past and works to educate the public and support research.

In a Time of Discovery, New Challenges in Stewardship

If you have heard about Pando before today, chances are heard about the tree in countless headlines written about the tree each year. Perhaps, have heard that research indicates — the tree is in decline. The challenges Pando presents are unique to the tree but also, solvable. Pando has been recognized by the Forest Service and lives on publicly held recreation lands. Were Pando on privately held lands or, leased to corporations, the situation would likely be even more challenging if not, impossible to remedy.  Below, are some of the challenges that require immediate attention. Questions we will have to answer. Insights on approaches worth consideration as the tree represents long-term challenges that will require an adaptive approach and long-term thinking.

Ungulates

deer in pando
Deer and their fawn roam Pando

If you have heard about Pando before today, chances are heard about the tree in countless headlines written about the tree each year. Perhaps, have heard that research indicates — the tree is in decline. The challenges Pando presents are unique to the tree but also, solvable. Pando has been recognized by the Forest Service and lives on publicly held recreation lands. Were Pando on privately held lands or, leased to corporations, the situation would likely be even more challenging if not, impossible to remedy.  Below, are some of the challenges that require immediate attention. Questions we will have to answer. Insights on approaches worth consideration as the tree represents long-term challenges that will require an adaptive approach and long-term thinking.

Disease

Pando suffers from three diseases commonly found in aspen. Sooty Bark Canker, Leaf Spot and a Conk fungal infection. Although the diseases are well known and generally understood, we do not know of the extent of these infections across the tree and the root system. Have they strangled the tree or will they destroy the root? Do these diseases play a positive or negative role in Pando’s ability to regenerate? Can current techniques used to manage these diseases work on a tree the size of Pando? In order to formulate an approach to tackle Pandos’ diseases, we will have to answer these questions.

3 diseases triptych
Target Canker | Leaf Spot | Conk Fungal Infection

Failures of Imagination

Misleading information about Pando

Another critical issue that endangers Pando is how we communicate  about the tree. To the right, are examples of incomplete and inaccurate information about the tree – related to it’s age and the state of its health. Common errors that have been copied and continue to be repeated. How we apply what we know and how we exercise our imagination will be vital to bringing about a future where Pando thrives. Promoting easily fact-checked falsehoods and using alarmist language leads people to believe the solutions are simple or, demand heroics rather than thoughtful diligence and long-term thinking. This, when the challenges before us require an adaptive approach that will involve generations of research, collaboration and innovation.

The Human Experience of Pando

The Colors of Pando (Art: Hope Smith, Photo: Lance Oditt)

As the world’s largest organism, Pando is a natural wonder that stands as a testament to the magnificence of nature’s imagination. Although Pando belongs to itself, it’s wellbeing is  now tied to how we respond; a situation worthy of introspection. Just as Pando has imagined and re-imaged itself over millennia, we might do well to consider how we imagine ourselves as part of nature and the role we can play. The challenges before us will require creativity, collaboration, compromise and sweat. The challenges also require humility and patience as many of the questions before us, will take generations to answer as Pando operates on scales of time well outside the human experience. Another way the tree challenges our notions of what a tree is, or what a tree can be. A flicker of thought that encourages us to do as the Pando does; remain flexible, work together, adapt and think long-term.

References

2021: Legacies of Indigenous land use shared past wildfire regimes in Basin-Plateau Region by Vachel Carter et al
2019: Past Management Spurs Differential Plant Communities within a Giant Single-Clone Aspen Forest by Paul Rogers and Jan Šebesta
2018: Mule deer impede Pando’s recovery: Implications for aspen resilience from a single-genotype forest by Paul Rogers and Darren McAvoy
2017: Guide to Quaking Aspen Ecology and Management by Paul Rogers
2008: “Pando Lives…” by Jennifer DeWoody, Carol A. Rowe, Valerie D. Hipkins, Karen E. Mock
2006: Signal Controlling Root Suckering and Adventitious Shoot Formation in Aspen (Populus tremuloides) by Wax Xianchong et al.
2006: Beneath These Red Cliffs: An Ethnohistory of the Utah Paiutes by Ronald Holt
1997: A History of Sevier County by M. Guy Bishop
1993: The Trembling Giant by Michael Grant
1974: Clone Size in Quaking Aspen by Burton Barnes and Jerry Kemperman

About Us

Friends of Pando is a not-for-profit organization operating under fiscal sponsorship of Snow College via in kind donations.

To learn more about how you can support our work, visit the About Us Page. 

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© 2021 | Design Hope Smith BA / Lance Oditt

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