Who is Utah's Worst Enemy

A tree like a man

The story of Pando begins 80,000, maybe even a million years ago, in nowhere on the North American Plate. A seed, the size of a peppercorn, germinates in the moist mineral soil, the roots sprout unstoppably.

The story of Paul Rogers begins 56 years ago in Chicago, Illinois. A boy, much too small when his father dies, grows up on the cracked asphalt of the suburbs, sees the mountains for the first time at twelve, real nature, and just wants to get out, unstoppable.

The story of Pando and Paul Rogers begins eleven years ago, in the Fishlake National Forest, Utah. Rogers just found a hold. For twenty years, Paul Rogers, who studied geography, had traveled through the national forests of the United States for the US Forest Service, from west to east, north to south, and he and the other outdoor workers slept in the motor home. They were a small group, but part of something big. They examined and counted the trees that belonged and served the whole country, all citizens. But over time, Rogers' longing for the two daughters and for his wife Anne, whom he had to leave behind again and again, had grown greater than the longing for the outside world and beyond.

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Anne already had her job at the Logan Library in Cache County, Utah. The family lived there in a house that Rogers had bought with the money he received for not being at home, 397 North and 400 West, Tibetan flag facing the street, hammock facing the courtyard. Logan, 50,600 inhabitants, is a university town in the middle of Mormon land. They weren't the only ones there who were different. And if the daughters did meet with Mormon boys, the Mormon parents did not hear about it. So Paul Rogers came back to civilization eleven years ago, which begins in the Utah history books in 1847, when the first Christians to invoke the Book of Mormon settled the steppe landscape between the snow-capped mountains because they were not tolerated anywhere else. But the Ute Indians had long been at home in Utah. And Pando even longer.

Rogers began working in Logan at Utah State University, where he had previously received his PhD with one last major field trip: The factors influencing epiphytes in the poplar forests of the Bear River Mountains in Idaho and Utah. Rogers liked poplars. More precisely: the American quivering aspen. This tree, from the willow family, is found mainly in southern Alaska and western Canada, but the population can be seen on the maps as a fine strip through the United States all the way down to Mexico. Trembling aspen grow quickly, twenty to 25 meters high, the slender trunks are white in winter like Utah's head-high snow, the round leaves in autumn are bright yellow like the eternal sun.

What impressed Paul Rogers about the aspen, also known as aspen, was its ability to survive. “No matter what happens,” says Rogers, “whether a forest fire sweeps over them, a disease strikes the tree or someone knocks an ax into the trunk, the aspen will immediately think: okay, it's time to have new babies! “The quaking aspen reproduces mainly vegetatively: Over time, many saplings grow from a single seed, which can emerge from the ground up to forty meters apart, but whose roots are connected to one another, so-called genets, clone colonies. What looks like a forest is a single tree. Whereby it gets philosophical, says Rogers. What is an individual? In any case, they are genetically identical trees. The clone siblings of such a collective, the Ramets, each live to be no more than 120 years old, but new ones are constantly growing. A fire can therefore be a blessing for an aspen, because it destroys its competition for light and water, in Utah these are conifers. The trees are dying in the flames. But no matter how many trunks burn above the ground, the aspen's underground root system, heart, brain and motor will survive. But none was as good at surviving as Pando.

In 1968, the botanist Burton Barnes from Ann Arbor, Michigan, wandered through the Fishlake National Forest and saw, less than two kilometers from the eponymous lake, Fish Lake, at about 2,700 meters above sea level, that there are countless aspens above and below the state Highway 25, a narrow road that leads through the hilly terrain, exactly matched the color of its leaves. Siblings of the clone bloom almost simultaneously and lose their leaves at the same time. This is how colorful landscapes in all shades of red and yellow emerge in the forests of Utah in autumn: the boundaries between the clone colonies become visible. Barnes was convinced that he had discovered a particularly large colony. He kept coming back to this magical place where the aspens make a noise that sounds like a waterfall when the wind blows. Barnes estimated that tens of thousands of aspens were connected here. Almost thirty years later, in 1992, Barnes’ sense of proportion was largely confirmed: Michael Grant, professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Colorado at Boulder, examined the annual rings of individual quivering aspen trees on site. It was also Grant who called the colony "Pando", Latin for "I'm spreading out."

But it was not until after the turn of the millennium that scientific possibilities had advanced sufficiently to pinpoint the impressive range of Pando. The geneticist Karen E. Mock of Paul Rogers ’University in Logan took DNA samples: Pando is male, consists of 47,000 trunks in an area of ​​43 hectares and weighs six million kilograms, including the roots. This makes Pando the heaviest organism on our planet.

Paul Rogers is cautious about this to this day. Unfortunately, there is still no technical solution to look underground to capture Pando's gigantic root system that is about half a meter deep. An attempt was made to send radioactive isotopes through the branching roots, but the radioisotopes only covered short distances, if at all, between two trees. How the aspens are interconnected in detail, where exactly their roots run, thick and thin, short and long, and whether Pando really is still under State Highway 25, which was dug and poured by the colony sometime before Burton Barnes' discovery stick together, or whether two separate but genetically identical colonies have formed cannot be determined. Pando's weight is an extrapolation. "When it comes to weight, everyone agrees," says Paul Rogers, "a real WAG, on the other hand, is age." WAG stands for "Wild Ass Guess", a rather wild guess. In spite of all genetics: whether Pando has been around for a million years, as the most daring researchers insist, or for 80,000 years, as is usually stated as a compromise, or only since the previous Ice Age, i.e. for 12,000 years - you just don't know. Regardless of these inaccuracies, Pando is regularly voted not only the heaviest but also the oldest organism in the world in publications that are to be taken seriously as well as in publications that are greedy for sensation. Paul Rogers says: “It is very likely that no living being we know is older or heavier than Pando. But it is also very likely that there is a living being that is older or heavier and we just don't know it yet. "

A seaweed colony in the Mediterranean is known, which - similarly vaguely - is estimated to be 12,000 to 200,000 years old. There is a colony of silver trees in Tasmania that may be 40,000 years old. In Sweden there is a 9,550 year old Norway spruce called Old Tjikko, a single tree, not a clone. And there's a mushroom growing in Oregon that's an even bigger organism than Pando. At least that's what the mushroom experts in Oregon say. It depends on what you count as a living mass. Paul Rogers is not interested in any of this. He didn't become the biggest Pando fan because of the records, the godfather of this wondrous creature.

Before his old employer, the National Forest Service, invited him to the Fishlake National Forest eleven years ago, Rogers hadn't looked at Pando. The United States Postal Service printed the clone colony on a postage stamp in 2006 as one of the forty “Wonders of America”. There was one or the other publication. But there were many aspens, innumerable colonies, you couldn't study all of them, not even Rogers. He had just put the orange-colored corduroy sofa, which had already sagged at the time, in his small, book-occupied office in the prefabricated building of the Faculty of Biology on the campus above Logan. That was where he belonged now. But of course he accepted the invitation. The aspen proves it: you can be rooted and still move away from the mother tree. Rogers didn't mind coming out, it wasn't a long journey either. He drove south on Interstate 15 in his dusty Toyota Prius for four hours, past Salt Lake City and the temples, through the arid valleys, into the lush mountains. Little did Rogers know that one day he would know this route by heart. He finally trudged through Pando with one of the rangers and immediately noticed three things.

First, the eyes. In their rapid growth, always facing the light, always facing the energy, aspens let their branches die off, which no longer receive the sun. The fallen branches leave traces on the trunk that look like human eyes. The Indians, it is said, believed: these are the eyes of mother nature. She makes sure that we treat her children well. But Paul Rogers had never felt like he was observed in the dense white and green of Pando, it was beautiful and strange at the same time.

Second, the aura. Even Paul Rogers, for whom superlatives are suspect and facts are a satisfaction, could not avoid being touched in the midst of these trembling aspen trees. What had those eyes already seen? The trees he stood next to might have been in place when Utah became the 45th state to become a fully qualified member of the United States in 1896. And the ancestors and ancestors and ancestors of these trees, next to which it stood, identical in construction, only from a different time, must have been there when the first humans came to America about 15,000 years ago. Paul Rogers felt a little dizzy. "It was," he says, "as if I were entering a city with a fabulous history."

Third, the problem. The poplars were beautiful and tall, stubborn and combative as they are. Some had leaned a little to one side. Some were intertwined. Some infested by insects. Others were already dead, hollowed out, black, but still standing, that is the custom. The aspens were fine. But Pando was doing badly. The problem wasn't the trees Paul Rogers saw. The problem was the trees he couldn't see. There were no young poplars in Pando. Not a single small trunk. Rogers was really looking all over the rocky slope where Pando stands. “In this city,” he recalls, “only pensioners lived. Imagine a city where only 85 year olds live. How long will this city exist? "

That was why they came for him. It could no longer be denied: Pando broke. Not immediately. But very soon compared to his previous lifetime. Rogers suspected on his first visit that no new strains had grown in two or three decades. Why didn't Pando continue?

There were a lot of guesswork around at the time. Did a persistent disease affect the clone colony? Was it a mushroom? The insects? Did Pando suffer from the increasing drought, as less snow fell from year to year, was Pando also a victim of climate change? What about the cows that grazed not far from the adjoining campsite in autumn? Cows do not particularly like the young sprouts of the quaking aspen, but when everything has been grazed, they also gnaw on the tiny trees, which are rich in proteins, that has already been observed. Or the mule deer? Mule deer, like elk, are crazy about tiny quivering aspen, their buds and leaves. The moose, although they were everywhere else in the area, had never come up to Pando for whatever reason. But mule deer were seen here a lot when the snow was gone.

But, no, it can't be the animals, said the rangers of the Fishlake National Forest, not the cows and not the deer, and the farmers and gamekeepers agreed with them, because part of Pando was fenced in as early as 1992, and within it too There were no aspen offspring in this protection zone. Also in 1992 a section of Pando was completely cleared. They wanted to see if removing the old trees would encourage new trees to grow. There too: nothing. So it must be old age, said a biologist, Pando's time was up. But that can't be a coincidence, thought Paul Rogers. Why now?

A working group was put together. Scientists from different disciplines, from various universities, as well as environmentalists, politicians, forest workers from the area. Paul Rogers liked that. He likes when people get together. They were like the clone colony: each member of the working group had strengths and interests and idiosyncrasies. But they were held together by one goal: to save Pando. But the similarities weren't strong enough. There was a lack of money and time and seriousness. Soon the working group consisted of only one person - Paul Rogers. He didn't want to give up. He found: Pando, this unique ecosystem, home to so many animals, must be explored in the name of all the trembling poplars. The quivering aspen, which is a must-have in any ski tourism advertising photo, was doing worse and worse all over Utah. If Pando was out of strength, how would the others hold out?

One day Paul Rogers saw a young deer crawl under the fence that had been protecting part of Pando since 1992. Nobody had wanted to listen to Rogers when they found deer droppings in this area before. His suspicions were now confirmed: the fence was too low, too full of holes. "Small aspens are a fantastic snack for the deer," says Rogers. "Of course they tried to crack the vending machine they'd built in front of their noses!" Rogers devised a plan: he wanted to have a new area fenced off, this time right, seven acres below the road that one could find out in peace what bothered Pando. But who should pay for that? At least $ 60,000. Rogers founded the "Western Aspen Alliance," an amalgamation of various groups, of which he became director. In 2014, the aspen was also named a Utah State Tree thanks to the initiative of a school class that Rogers guided through Pando. The forest authorities finally had the fence erected.

A sunny winter morning. The aspens shine even whiter than usual against the blue of the sky. Paul Rogers has never visited Pando at this time of year. Usually there is too much snow. That is also now. But the street has been cleared. Ice fishermen meet on Fish Lake. During the drive to Pando, Rogers is as friendly as ever, but he can hardly hide the sadness he is feeling these days. He clung to the yellowed thermo mug he always carries with him, as a matter of principle and to be a role model, Rogers can't stand people drinking their coffee from disposable cups. He can't stand how much meat people now eat, every day. Rogers only eats burgers on weekends. He has lost weight. His hair is long and his beard has grown. It is as if Rogers, who used to be round and rosy, had built an invisible fence around himself, under whose protection he lets everything grow and keep it healthy.

Both daughters are out of the house, they are studying. The big one calls from Ecuador via Skype, but the picture often hangs. The former guest students from Finland and Germany also call. Paul and Anne Rogers want to fly to them again soon. If it weren't that expensive. Yes, he and Anne sometimes feel alone, says Rogers. On Tuesdays they go curling with friends in the ice rink. But that can't be all. Early in the morning Anne sent him an angry text message, in capital letters, because the day before Rogers had dismantled the little coffee table that had been rotting in the courtyard for years. Anne never wants to throw anything away. But Rogers feels the need to finally clean up.

Then, when we get to Pando, something happens to Rogers. He puts on his trekking backpack. He climbs over the barbed wire fence that was his idea. He buckles on his snowshoes. He stomps over the concrete-hard snow to the trees, and suddenly he is cheering like a little boy. "That doesn't exist," he shouts, "there are more!" They stretch their little green necks out of the snow everywhere: the new aspens. “This tree makes me happy every time,” shouts Rogers, “but never so much! It works, damn it! "

Over the past three years, Rogers, with the help of a local biologist, has installed three test zones inside the new fence. They didn't do anything in the first one. In the second zone, they removed all other plants, mosses, ferns, shrubs, conifers. Maybe Pando was struggling with them. The local fire brigade set a fire in the third zone. Perhaps Pando needed help getting rid of old, diseased trees in order to produce new ones. Last year, Rogers published the test results: New aspens are growing all over the fenced area. The differences between the three test zones are negligible. That means: Pando was not helped by the fire or by removing the other growths. It's just the fence. Without the mule deer - and the lazy cows - Pando grows again. The reason that no new aspens have emerged in more than thirty years was because they were eaten away as soon as they came out of the ground.

Later, Rogers sits on a wide stump and eats his trail mix. "The result of my study is not: the deer is to blame," he says. “Man is to blame. We brought the grazing cattle here. We have exterminated all natural enemies of the deer, especially the wolves. And we even kept the deer in the region for years, with feedings and barriers. Because it is lucrative for the state to sell hunting licenses. Where there are many deer, there is a lot of hunting. But as many deer as are newly added cannot be shot at all. In addition, hunting is prohibited around Pando because of the residents. ”Rogers then presented his study in Los Angeles at a conference of the organization“ Pando Populus ”. Some start-up people, a few weirdos and millionaires have teamed up under this name to stand up for a greener world. "We're all connected," they say. Pando has become their symbol.

Rogers felt a little strange in Los Angeles, but he hopes that the influential and somewhat distant Pando disciples raise enough money so that an information board can finally be erected here. If you don't know anything about Pando, you haven't found it yet. The people of Pando Populus want to apply for the federal government to designate Pando a national monument. But since Trump came to power, Rogers no longer believes in it. The funds for environmental protection have been drastically cut. Rogers says, “It's a shame we don't want to spend anything on such a miracle. Pando is a miracle, because we still don't understand exactly how it works. «Does Pando have a mayor, a center, an oldest tree that controls all processes, that uses the messenger substances that flow through the roots to determine where to go the energy flows that is generated by photosynthesis by all individuals? Or is Pando organized on a grassroots basis? How does Pando think? What is pando? A gigantic hard drive? Some kind of swarm intelligence? Something much bigger? Rogers often thinks of the Borg from his favorite television series, Star Trek, a species organized like an insect race; the omniscient queen at the top makes all decisions, the subjects follow blindly. The Borg are constantly adapting to changing environmental conditions and have only one goal: to get bigger. "On the other hand," says Rogers, chewing the nuts thoughtfully, "Pando doesn't seem to want any harm to me."

The further Paul Rogers moves away from Pando in the passenger seat at the end of the day, the worse his mood gets. On the radio they talk about the uncertain future of Obamacare. Trump's Republicans are doggedly trying to get rid of the parastatal health care that was introduced under Barack Obama. Significantly fewer US citizens would then have health insurance. “I can't believe it,” mumbles Rogers, “that simple health insurance is already considered socialism in my country. Then Pando is also a socialist. It shows how wonderful it is: everyone gives something and is guaranteed protection from the community! "Rogers looks at the faceless shopping centers that spread out in front of Salt Lake City:" The only common denominator in this country seems to be consumption be. That's why we now have a dangerous multi-billionaire president! It's all about making as much money as possible. "

Rogers does not get a salary from the university where he works, this has long been the norm at many universities. Rogers has to get his salary and the money for the research through fundraising and sponsorship, he has to propose and promote usable projects. If Rogers did not get a fixed monthly sum from his aspen protection organization, he could no longer take care of Pando.

“What should happen to Pando now?” Asks Rogers shortly before Logan and answers himself: “The fence has to remain in place for another year until the new trees are tall enough so that the deer can't get to the leaves. Actually, we should fence all of Pando in, but that is not only too expensive, it would also be another encroachment on nature. Too many deer are not natural. But no deer either! ”The only solution would be to get the deer population under control and let the cows graze elsewhere. But that is a political question. That takes years, at least.

“What makes me so depressed,” says Rogers, “is that Pando has endured so much. Then comes this short window of time in which we humans are in the world with him - and suddenly Pando feels bad. We're the worst disaster he's ever seen. ”One of the rangers from Fishlake National Forest recently came to see Rogers. He wanted to help even more, said the man. He realized what a shame it would be if Pando died now of all times. The man said, and Rogers liked that: "Not while I'm on duty!"

Photos: Patrick Bauer, Diane Cook, Len Jenshe, National Geographic: Creative