What is Pando? A guide to one of Utah’s most unassuming natural wonders.

Utah is filled with natural wonders, from the famous Delicate Arch and supernatural hoodoo spiers of Bryce Canyon to the rugged peaks of the Wasatch Range and the eponymous Great Salt Lake, the capital.

Another is more modest: an aspen stand in southern Utah near the state’s largest natural mountain lake. The stock is a single organism called Pando and much attention has been drawn to this collection of trees.

Even before Utah State University’s Karen Mock and other researchers proved Pando to be a single organism in 2008, she said it was “famous.”

But lately Pando’s health seems to be in danger. Here’s what you need to know about this superlative organism and how groups are trying to save it:

What is Pando?

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) State Route 25 runs through the Fishlake National Forest and through the middle of Pando, July 26, 2023.

Pando, Latin for “I spread,” is a clonal quaking aspen colony in Utah’s Fishlake National Forest, near the shore of Fish Lake, Utah’s largest natural mountain lake. State Route 25 runs right through the aspen stand.

Although the organism looks like thousands of individual trees, they are all one and the same organism, made up of the same DNA that has been regenerated over thousands of years into new shoots or trunks that regrow and replace the older ones. Large parts of Pando have a colossal root system, and the parts that aren’t connected are still genetic clones.

For example, when the leaves on the trees change color in autumn, the whole of Pando is transformed at once.

It spans 106 acres and weighs more than 13 million pounds. It has inspired people for decades, if not longer, and raises philosophical questions about individuality, mortality, and change.

Ironically, this superlative organism is also a microcosm of the problems faced by the aspen elsewhere, and research there could shed light on how to better conserve this key species.

Is Pando dying?

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Pando, a colony of aspens, is the world’s most massive living organism at over 13 million pounds.

According to research by Paul Rogers, an associate professor at Utah State University and director of the Western Aspen Alliance, Pando’s regeneration began to slow over the decades.

His research has also shown that different parts of Pando regenerate better than others due to fences.

parts of the stand within fences show a healthy mix of strains of different ages. Portions within previously damaged fences that have now been repaired have too many young trees and not enough older or middle-aged trees. And in parts of Pando that are not fenced, Older trees age and die, while new trunks do not regenerate because they serve as food for deer and cattle.

Does that mean more fences is the answer to save Pando? Rogers doesn’t think so.

[Read more: Once given a death sentence, Utah’s Pando aspen grove has ‘come a long way’]

Rogers wrote in a 2022 article that authorities must work together to control cattle and deer grazing in Pando if they want the animal to survive. You can’t just focus on “control-based conservation.”

“Current surfing pressures and increasing human traffic bode well for a bleak future for Pando,” he wrote.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Division of Wildlife Resources biologists (from left), Morgan Hinton, Kyle Christensen and Mike Wardle, check the vitals, age and health of a 6-year-old mule deer before tagging it and placing a GPS collar on the hind that was foraging near Pando, July 26, 2023.

But there is room for hope, at least in the short term. Terry Holsclaw of the US Forest Service said in an email that most of the population — about 90% — appears to be recovering.

It also appears that Roger’s desire for cross-agency collaboration is also being fulfilled. Utah’s Department of Wildlife Resources recently sent biologists to Pando to place tracking collars on mule deer near the population to find out how often they graze the organism’s young stalks — and what wildlife protection agencies should do about it.

The Forest Service also approved a plan to install additional fences, close some roads and eliminate cattle grazing in and around Pando.

How Pando will fare over the long term in the face of a warming climate and the threat of disease is less clear, Mock said.

What’s bigger than pando?

Guinness World Records classifies an Australian seagrass meadow as the largest living organism. Shark Bay’s seagrass (Posidonia australis) covers 20,000 hectares—more than 49,400 acres.

It inherited the crown from Oregon’s Humongous Fungus, a species of honey fungus that spreads over 965 hectares, or about 2,385 acres.

However, Pando is technically the best firmly known organism, with more than 13 million pounds.

Adding to the intrigue, there are likely even larger aspen clones out there than Pando, said Mock, a department head at Utah State University’s Quinney College of Natural Resources. We just haven’t discovered them yet.

This is how you see pando

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Signs mark the entrance to Pando on Highway 25.

For generations, people have visited Fish Lake and rested under the shade of pando and other aspen stands, said Dan Child, a public service officer with the Forest Service.

It’s no different now.

Stop to see Pando exiting along State Route 25. The borders are delimited by two metal signs. You can also move freely through parts of the stand. If you enter through a gate, be sure to close it.

And don’t carve in the aspens.

“The bark of a tree is like your skin. Carving into a live tree can lead to infection and deny insects and fungi access to a healthy trunk,” Child said. “Please do not carve, chop or nail into the trees.”

There are a few lodges nearby, as well as public and private cabins. established campsites; and some camped scattered in or near parts of the clone. Public cabins and campsites can be reserved at Recreation.gov.

If you are unable to visit Pando, you can view images of the aspen stand on the website of the citizen science group Friends of Pando. Your volunteers, with help from Snow College, conducted a photographic survey of the stand to track the changes and show it to those who couldn’t see it in person.

Justin Scaccy

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