Mongabay: Why aspen? How did you first come to study them and what drew you to their distinctive ecology?

Paul C. Rogers: I think fundamentally I’m lured because of the biodiversity. You walk into these groves and it kind of grabs you. And even if you don’t know anything about the ecology, there’s a lot going on there compared to the adjacent conifer forest or alpine meadow. Those places are beautiful. I’m not putting them down. But the aspen environment has been documented over and over to be just alive with a lot of different species, which means a lot of different interactions, which is practically the definition of ecology. That gets me all ramped up.

Your research for the past decade has focused on the aspen clone in Utah known as Pando. What’s happening to it?

To get right to the punch line, it’s sort of falling apart on our watch. And that points a finger at humanity at large for how we’re interacting with the Earth—Is it in a sustainable way? Or is it not? And so [Pando] becomes kind of a microcosm of how we interact with the Earth. And you can put it in a more stark way: If we can’t fix this thing that’s 43 hectares, how are we going to deal with global warming? How are we going to deal with ocean pollution?

A deer and her fawns explore Pando’s edges. Deer and elk browse the sugary sprouts of the prolific 40-hectare (100-acre) aspen clone and have left massive voids in the ancient grove. Image by Lance Oditt/Western Aspen Alliance/Studio 47.60° North.

In an interview last year you said you view Pando as “a giant mirror reflecting how we’re interacting and engaging with our Earth at large.” What did you mean by that?

I like anything in natural systems that makes us look at ourselves deeper. We think we’re better. But are we separate from this Earth? Are we connected in some important way?

Our short-term thinking — and I’m not pointing fingers at any individuals, but humanity at large — we want to get the stuff and the goods now for the money now. But there’s limits and we’re not real good at understanding those. And there’s not only limits. More importantly, there’s vital connections. And the irony here, of course — we’re seeing this with climate change, we’ve probably seen this with the COVID-19 pandemic — is that the connections come back and they bite us in the knee. So, we are more connected than we think.

What insights can you gather from studying Pando that you couldn’t get from a different aspen forest?

Scientists like to have controls on their study so they can understand the parts that are not controlled. And that’s very difficult to do in ecology, because there’s so many factors involved. However, we have sort of a gift in our lap here with the Pando clone. We have a forest that is genotypically identical. And so the idea is that we can learn a little bit more about some principles of aspen ecology if we can study with a little finer lens one ecosystem that’s a forest, [but that’s also] an individual. We’d expect it would react more or less the same to environmental changes. It would react as uniformly as any forest could, theoretically.

So how can we take the principles learned there, when we’ve controlled for genetics on a whole forest, and expand it to the world — I’m starting to use this phrase “from Pando to Pangea”— to the idea of a “superorganism.”

A panorama of Fish Lake, Utah, with the Pando aspen grove on the far side of the lake. Image by Lance Oditt/Western Aspen Alliance/Studio 47.60° North.

And this idea of a “superorganism” led to this concept you’re calling “mega-conservation.” What is mega-conservation?

Mega-conservation, succinctly, is focusing [conservation efforts] on [widespread and biodiverse] ecosystems so that we are helping to preserve many, many, many more species.

What makes aspen ecosystems good candidates for a mega-conservation approach?

They’re widespread, and they’re keystone species. So that would be the short answer. You might [also] apply that to eucalyptus, for example, that covers a large part of Australia, or these great sage steppe lands, both in Eurasia and the U.S. that are very widespread and that support lots of other animals. So if you look at that scale for widespread, broad vegetation types that support important ecosystems within their climatic limitations, those would be key assets that would make them candidates [for a mega-conservation approach].

Why do aspen systems support disproportionate amounts of biodiversity?

Well, generally speaking, they retain more water, and that becomes a positive feedback loop. If you think about walking through your classic aspen stand in the western U.S., it’s rich with forbs and flowers and grasses and sometimes tall herbs. All of those things hold water.

If you think of Wyoming, for example, there’s so much sagebrush, but there’s islands of aspen. They are used by almost every creature you can think of, but they also have a lot of plant diversity. However, now under this elevated ungulates scenario [with deer, elk and livestock over-browsing aspen forests] they are getting hammered. They’re barely surviving and many have died out. They also tend to be [located at] about the driest end of the aspen survivability curve. And so they’re getting hit by drought and herbivory together, and all the animals need them. So all those dependent species can’t find a home, so to speak, they can’t find a habitat. They have miles and miles of sagebrush, but they need to visit aspen on a daily basis.

My job isn’t conservation or even study of aspen, the tree species. It’s the whole system. Our objective [is to] think about that globally, or even just continentally.

Autumn, on the road through the Pando grove. Image by Lance Oditt/Western Aspen Alliance/Studio 47.60° North.

Some scientists have critiqued the idea of a “keystone” species — one species that supports lots of biodiversity — as being difficult to define, and so likely to lead to ambiguities around conservation policy and to divert resources from more endangered species. How do you decide when to focus on a common “keystone” species like aspen and when to focus directly on species in more dire need?

It doesn’t have to be either/or. [The question is:] How do you preserve more species? The last thing we need is to have people trying to do good things throwing spears at each other.

However, when we think strategically, particularly at large scales — at country or continental scales — how are we going to spend our resources? I think that’s a worthy consideration. Aldo Leopold said preserve all the cogs. It makes sense if you’re going to take apart your bicycle and rebuild it, you know, be careful where you put everything, right? We don’t even know the importance of all the species. We don’t even know all the species yet. And we’re a long way from that, actually. So, if it was a complete tradeoff, [we’d ask]: ‘Do we focus on that [rare] charismatic species, or do we play strategically here and try to save all the pieces?’

I’m not suggesting an answer at all. But we got to make those tough decisions. I think that this concept of mega-conservation, or aspen as a superorganism, hopefully adds in a positive way to that conversation.

Paul Rogers in the Pando grove. Image by Lance Oditt/Western Aspen Alliance/Studio 47.60° North.

In a paper out in March you and a consortium of aspen scientists from across the Northern Hemisphere lay out the shared challenges facing aspen forests worldwide. It involved scientists from Canada, China, the Czech Republic, Finland, Norway, Russia, Sweden, and the U.S. What was that collaboration like? And what were some of your key takeaways?

Yeah, I guess it sort of hit my pleasure nerve. I’m a biogeographer. Basically, that’s studying how plants differ and why they differ over geographic ranges. So you’ve mixed human culture with climates and how does that affect plants and environmental systems. I love those things. So, the selfish part is I get to learn a lot. And that’s cool. But also I get to learn how [aspen scientists from other countries] might have different approaches to either fixing a problem, or ignoring it, or being comfortable with it. Also, the possibility of building those kinds of connections on a more permanent basis really excites my professional interests. And if we can share our knowledge and develop better ecological understanding, then we can manage in more resilient ways, globally. It’s a shared, cooperative approach.

What are the next steps for this global aspen research collaboration?

Quite honestly, we were starting to make some of those and then the pandemic [happened] and the lack of travel. But my next thought, again, very simplistic, was to start physically connecting and meeting those people. And say OK, how can we take this idea of an Aspen Conservation Consortium and get it off the ground?

How has your thinking about conservation been inspired by aspen ecology?

The idea of a superorganism…It’s almost bigger than we can think. I enjoy challenging myself to think maybe we don’t need a sharp dividing line between the individual and the community. Whether you want to think about that in the human context or the forest, doesn’t matter to me. But it’s challenging, and I think we need to be challenged. We spend a lot of time, obviously, dividing ourselves. As people, in little groups and things. And is that helpful in terms of our sustainability and resilience? Or is it hurtful? And I’m all about exploring the connections. If our goal is sustainability, quality of life richness, whether ecosystems or people or the “superorganism” of all of that, I feel that’s a stronger way to go.

Aspen trees are notes for the eye-like scars left when their branches drop off. Image by Lance Oditt/Western Aspen Alliance/Studio 47.60° North.

Banner image: An aspen grove in Fishlake National Forest, Utah. Image by Lance Oditt/Western Aspen Alliance/Studio 47.60° North.

James Dinneen is a writer from Colorado. Read more of his work at jamesdinneen.wordpress.com. Twitter: @jamesNESW

Citations:

Mills, L. S., Soulé, M. E., & Doak, D. F. (1993). The Keystone-species concept in ecology and conservation. BioScience43(4), 219-224. doi:10.2307/1312122

Rogers, P. C., Landhäusser, S. M., Pinno, B. D., & Ryel, R. J. (2014). A functional framework for improved management of western North American Aspen (Populus tremuloides Michx.). Forest Science60(2), 345-359. doi:10.5849/forsci.12-156

Rogers, P. C., & McAvoy, D. J. (2018). Mule deer impede Pando’s recovery: Implications for Aspen resilience from a single-genotype forest. PLOS ONE13(10), e0203619. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0203619

Rogers, P. C., Pinno, B. D., Šebesta, J., Albrectsen, B. R., Li, G., Ivanova, N., … Kulakowski, D. (2020). A global view of Aspen: Conservation science for widespread Keystone systems. Global Ecology and Conservation21, e00828. doi:10.1016/j.gecco.2019.e00828

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