The Environment

The Giving Tree

June 1, 2020  • Institute Staff

Aspen (Populus tremuloides) forests, like the Aspen Institute, have global reach. Institute partner and ecologist Paul C. Rogers, the director of the Western Aspen Alliance at Utah State University, knows that better than anyone. He’s an expert on the Pando aspen clone, thought to be the largest living organism on Earth, weighing in at 13 million pounds—a tree equal to the mass of 40 blue whales. But then, large bodies often evolve from a single seed or ideal, bringing disparate groups together, encouraging diversity, and building lasting networks. The potentially 14,000-year-old Pando aspens comprise about 12,427 miles—equivalent to half the earth’s circumference—of interconnected roots. But research suggests the Pando grove is foundering and may be breaking up, a catastrophe of mismanagement—by wildlife, forest, recreation, and ranching professionals. Left alone, aspen forests are very good at replacing themselves; it’s how the clone grove expanded to its great size in the first place. Every “tree” is really a branch from a once-united root system—a forest of one tree. But human decision making over decades has skewed the grove’s demography. There are no infant, teenage, or young-adult aspens; it’s an unsustainable city of elderly trees. Rogers recently teamed up with other scientists from nine countries to publish the first-ever world compilation of conditions in aspen ecosystems. They proposed “mega conservation,” a strategy that in contrast with conventional single-species preservation focuses on very specific species, like the aspen, that in turn support myriad other species. Without such a plan, the planet can expect a massive assault on its biodiversity. “Aspen” has many meanings for Rogers: an essential tree; a principled institute; a unique mountain town. Now Rogers wants to fuse those traits—essential, principled, unique—to create a lasting, ecologically driven world. It’s what we call the Aspen Idea.