Utah’s 100-Acre Aspen Forest, World’s Largest Organism, Faces Major Problem

by Shelby Scott

Global warming and deforestation continue to threaten many of our planet’s trees and forests. However, Utah’s Aspen Forest, the largest single organism in the world, faces a unique tree problem all its own. Thanks to the over-grazing of deer and cattle, the unique ancient forest is now at risk of breaking up.

According to Newsweek, Utah’s Aspen Forest, also known as “Pando,” is remarkable in its longevity alone. Scientists estimate the forest to be 14,000 years old. That compares to California’s iconic redwoods, specifically the Trail of Giants, which have stood for more than 1,000 years. Also, as the largest singular organism on the planet, the outlet states it weighs as much as 13 million pounds.

So how exactly, at 13 million pounds, are livestock potentially killing the forest? It all has to do with the organism’s process of growth.

At its simplest, Utah’s Aspen Forest consists of genetically identical trees, all of which share one massive root system. The forest’s trees grow identically via off-shooting suckers or basal shoots. These then enable the plant to create an identical version of itself. However, in order to grow, those suckers must root and join the singular root system— and grazers have hampered that process.

The Aspen Forest is hardly the only natural organism to undergo what the outlet called “vegetative dispersal.” Other organisms that undergo this same process include the much more common apple and cherry tree.

Why Overgrazing in Utah Has Begun Killing the Aspen Forest:

Overgrazing has become as detrimental to the Aspen Forest in Utah as deforestation has to the Amazon Rainforest in South America.

According to a research project published in the Conservation Science and Practice journal, mule deer and domestic cattle have been threatening the growth of the forest as they are eating the trees’ off-shoots, preventing the organism from growing an ample amount of new mature trees.

Paul C. Rogers, who wrote the paper, also states that fencing, a step taken to prevent grazing herds from consuming the forest’s sprouts, has actually hurt its growth.

“Findings show that the genetically uniform Pando is ‘breaking up’ because of herbivory and fencing. This iconic aspen clone has experienced persistent browsing over recent decades by mule deer (Odocoileus hemionus Raf.) and cattle (Bos taurus L.) such that it is slowly dying; a once-dense canopy is thinning out while offspring (regenerating suckers) fail to reach maturity.”

One might think that fencing animals off from grazing the iconic forest would keep it from breaking apart. However, scientists state those mediocre conservation efforts have actually served to divide the singular organism even more. What’s more, many of those erected fences are no longer maintained and so nothing is keeping wildlife and livestock alike from grazing those areas.

Speaking about the fractioning off of the forest, Rodgers added, “Fences have been erected to mitigate herbivory at Pando, but such visual and ecological intrusions potentially bring additional problems, such as creating esthetic impairments and novel floristic pathways at this natural wonder.”

More than anything though, the fences have discouraged the organism’s root system from maintaining its singular status, instead creating fragmented regions.