Why a scientist cut down ‘the oldest living tree’

The Prometheus Tree in Nevada was nearly 5,000 years old when it was cut down. It could have lived a lot longer.

 

Great Basin National Park in eastern Nevada is one of the most remote and least visited of our national parks, with Wheeler Peak as its central feature at 13,063 feet. On the mountain’s flanks are ancient bristlecone pines, among the oldest living trees on earth, and it was an incident that occurred in this grove — the cutting down of a bristlecone called the Prometheus Tree — that brought the species to the world’s attention in 1965. 

The tree’s death sparked a worldwide reaction and was instrumental in the creation of Great Basin National Park. It also haunted the life of the scientist who had asked the Forest Service to cut the tree down. Only after the bristlecone had been felled did the scientist and Forest Service discover that what they had killed was then the world’s oldest known living thing. And we still haven’t forgiven them.

Within the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest near the California-Nevada border.
Chao Yen/Flickr user

Before 1965, the bristlecone fan base was small, made up primarily of local residents, photographers who appreciated the tree’s age-sculpted beauty and a few scientists. Bristlecones had been used to calibrate the radiocarbon-dating technique for determining the age of ancient organic remains, and climatologists studied the tree’s annual growth rings to decipher historical climate events.

These studies, however, were mostly conducted along the California-Nevada border and relied primarily on corings, which did little harm to the individual trees. A few White Mountain bristlecones had been cut down for study before 1965, but there were no outcries when those ancients struck the ground.

The felling of what turned out to be the world’s oldest known tree — at close to 5,000 years of age — was first disclosed by Donald Currey, the scientist who wanted it cut down. A geography graduate student at the University of North Carolina, Currey was studying bristlecones to determine climatic events during the Little Ice Age.   

Publishing his findings in the journal Ecology in 1965, Currey said the growth form of the ancient tree made it impossible to determine its age by coring. He said he had the tree cut down in part to refute the claim that the oldest living trees grew only in the White Mountains. 

Currey paid dearly for those bragging rights, and was criticized for years. In later years (he died in 2004) he refused to be interviewed about the incident. It is easy to cast Currey as villain. But he believed he was making a case for the significance of the Wheeler Peak population, and of course he did make the case, just not in the way he intended. Had the tree been a little younger than the oldest trees in the White Mountains, the ensuing ruckus might have been less noisy and more local. Considering the pace with which we clear-cut forests in North America, including old-growth stands, the outcry over the death of one tree might even be called disproportionate. 

Some regretted the felling for aesthetic reasons, others for politics or science. But the greatest outcry came from the knowledge that this was the death, not just of what was thought to be the oldest living tree, but the oldest living thing in the world. The notion of the “oldest living thing” is a human conceit and has little relevance other than as a symbolic hedge against our own mortality. Extremes set the boundary of existence: the biggest, the oldest, the fastest. We were upset because that boundary retracted slightly when Prometheus was cut.

The incident brought the ancient bristlecones to the world’s attention. It also added fuel to those who wanted to take Wheeler Peak and its trees away from what they felt was an uncaring Forest Service, and put them in the hands of the National Park Service. That issue smoldered for another two decades until 1986, when Great Basin National Park was established, with the mountain and its pines as core features, along with the Lehman Caves. 

You can see one of Currey’s cross-sections of the Prometheus Tree at the national park visitor center in Baker, Nevada. The oddly shaped cross-section is 12 feet in circumference, but the amount of living bark was only five inches wide when the tree was cut. The vast remainder of the tree’s exterior was dead wood.

But with that five inches, it might have lived another thousand years had our curiosity not killed it. 

Richard LeBlond is a contributor to Writers on the Range, the opinion service of High Country News. He is a retired biologist living in North Carolina.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at betsym@hcn.org.