LOA -- The U.S. Forest Service is trying to save one of the world's largest and oldest organisms, a 106-acre aspen thicket being threatened by pests, wildlife and climate change on a mountain slope in central Utah.
Without help the aspen grove could die and finish off a common root system believed to be tens of thousands of years old. It gave birth to genetically identical aspens that aren't sustaining new generations of sprouts.
"We probably don't have more than 10 years with this clone," said Terry Holsclaw, a silviculturist for the Fishlake National Forest near Loa, Utah.
Kevin Mueller, program director for the Utah Environmental Congress, said, "I call them the standing dead."
The only good way to ensure the aspen stand's future may be to log the mature trees, encouraging the root system to generate sprouts, experts say.
A $100,000 fence would be required to protect the saplings from munching deer and elk, but even this approach may not solve every problem.
Scientists aren't certain the root system is healthy enough to send up a sufficient number of suckers to fight off beetles, fungus and gnawing rodents.
Another option is to rip through the root system with tractor blades. Separating a root from the tree stimulates it to regrow a shoot. Likewise, the Forest Service could clear the stand with a controlled fire.
Those are some of the options under study by the U.S. Forest Service, which is expected to make a decision on its approach next year.
The agency's success will determine the fate of an aspen grove estimated to have taken root about 80,000 years ago.
Scientist plan to install cameras in study plots next summer to document how often deer, elk and cattle browse in a grove nearly devoid of aspen sprouts.
They've taken notice of another slope of young aspens nearby. Those aspens are growing thickly behind the safety of a deer fence, Holsclaw said.
Climate change could ultimately defeat these efforts.
The grove is believed to have thrived during wetter climates with protection from frequent wildfires that beat back the advance of its main competitor, conifer trees.
The shift to a semi-arid Southwest after the Ice Age has all but stopped aspens from flowering and spreading faster with seeds in the wind, scientists say.
Scientists say they haven't found any living thing as old as the aspens' common root system, called Pando.
The Utah aspen grove is sometimes also called the world's largest living thing, but other aspen clones throughout the western U.S. haven't been well studied make it definitive.
Other candidates for oldest or heaviest living organisms include fungal mats in Oregon, ancient clonal Creosote bushes in California's Mojave desert, and the clonal marine plant Posidonia oceanica in the Mediterranean Sea.
Information from: The Salt Lake Tribune, http://www.sltrib.com