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Pando, one of the world’s largest living organisms, is dying

Posted at 8:24 PM, Oct 30, 2012
and last updated 2012-10-30 22:24:58-04

FISHLAKE NATIONAL FOREST -- This is the home of the gentle giant.

"Pando," the name given to about 43,000 aspen trees connected at the roots, is one of the world's largest living organisms. The 106-acre aspen clone is considered a wonder of the natural world.

"Pando in Latin actually means, 'I spread,' " said Paul Rogers, the director of the Western Aspen Alliance at Utah State University. "And this is a being or an organism that has been spreading for hundreds, if not thousands of years."

Some scientists estimate Pando is about 80,000 years old. But for all its beauty, Pando is dying an ugly death. Throughout the grove, one can see old, dead trees. But there is nothing replacing them. (See photos CLICK HERE)

"As the old trees die, the young trees come in and as you look through this stand here, there's not a lot of young trees coming in," said Kurt Robins, the district ranger of the Fishlake National Forest.

Forest officials and scientists can't pin the slow death of Pando on any one specific thing.

"The adults are dying from a combination of drought, insects and disease," Rogers told FOX 13. "And these things typically work in combination as opposed to one creature taking it out."

There are also many reasons why new trees aren't springing up in the place of the dead. Wildlife, livestock and campers in the area have contributed.

"We don't want Pando to die, but it needs some help," Robins said.

At Utah State University in Logan, the Western Aspen Alliance has been studying the Pando clone. They are working with a coalition of land owners, foresters, conservationists and recreationists on a plan to save it.

"It's on triage, you might say, so we've got to pump a little life blood into it, protect it for a while and I feel pretty confident we'll get a good response," Rogers said.

Recently, the U.S. Forest Service secured about $60,000 in funding to try a series of experiments to resurrect Pando. Next spring, foresters will fence off access to about 67 acres of it from wildlife, livestock and people.

Then, scientists will begin experimenting on Pando about five acres at a time to see which is most effective.

"What we're going to do is stimulate the root system and we can do that in a number of ways," Rogers said. "By either burning along the ground, or cutting some of the mature trees down. That causes a chemical reaction in the tree and causes them to sprout."

Years ago, the U.S. Forest Service fenced off an area of Pando and clear cut the trees. The aspen have shown signs of regeneration in that area.

"It, for the most part, has been effective," Robins said. "We still get a few deer crawling under the fence, but it's critical in the first two or three years that the aspen get tall enough."

Scientists hope they can take what they learn from trying to save Pando and apply it to other forests across Utah and the western United States.

"What we see is a lot of problems in the Pando clone, and these are mirrored in a lot of places across the state," Rogers said.

On a road trip through the area, Patrick Chaupham and Ozzy Farman stopped to marvel at the Pando clone.

"I live in New York City and so it's a nice departure from the buildings," Farman said.

Chaupham said he certainly hopes the experiments to save Pando work.

"It'd be sad to see all of this go away," he told FOX 13. "This is my first time up to Fish Lake and it's amazing, so I'd like to come back and see it's still here. Hopefully, for my kids."

For information on the Western Aspen Alliance, click here.

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