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.

High Country News Classifieds
  • OPERATIONS DIRECTOR
    We are a Santa Fe-based nonprofit that builds resilience on arid working lands. We foster ecological, economic, and social health through education, innovation, and collaboration....
  • COMMUNITY ORGANIZER
    Come work alongside everyday Montanans to project our clean air, water, and build thriving communities! Competitive salary, health insurance, pension, generous vacation time and sabbatical....
  • CAMPAIGN MANAGER
    Oregon Natural Desert Association (ONDA), a nonprofit conservation organization dedicated to protecting, defending and restoring Oregon's high desert, seeks a Campaign Manager to works as...
  • HECHO DEPUTY DIRECTOR
    Hispanics Enjoying Camping, Hunting, and the Outdoors (HECHO) was created in 2013 to help fulfill our duty to conserve and protect our public lands for...
  • REGIONAL REPRESENTATIVE, COLUMBIA CASCADES
    The Regional Representative serves as PCTA's primary staff on the ground along the trail working closely with staff, volunteers, and nonprofit and agency partners. This...
  • FINANCE AND OPERATIONS DIRECTOR
    The Montana Land Reliance (MLR) seeks a full-time Finance and Operations Director to manage the internal functions of MLR and its nonprofit affiliates. Key areas...
  • DIRECTOR OF CONSERVATION
    The Nature Conservancy is recruiting for a Director of Conservation. Provides strategic leadership and support for all of the Conservancy's conservation work in Arizona. The...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Amargosa Conservancy (AC), a conservation nonprofit dedicated to standing up for water and biodiversity in the Death Valley region, seeks an executive director to...
  • BIG BASIN SENIOR PROJECT PLANNER - CLIMATE ADAPTATION & RESILIENCE
    Parks California Big Basin Senior Project Planner - Climate Adaptation & Resilience ORGANIZATION BACKGROUND Parks California is a new organization working to ensure that our...
  • CUSTOMER SERVICE ASSISTANT - (PART-TIME)
    High Country News, an award-winning media organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks a part-time Customer Service Assistant, based at...
  • SCIENCE PROJECT MANAGER
    About Long Live the Kings (LLTK) Our mission is to restore wild salmon and steelhead and support sustainable fishing in the Pacific Northwest. Since 1986,...
  • HUMAN RESOURCES GENERALIST
    Honor the Earth is an affirmative action/equal opportunity employer and does not discriminate based on identity. Indigenous people, people of color, Two-Spirit or LGBTQA+ people,...
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    Colorado Trout Unlimited seeks an individual with successful development experience, strong interpersonal skills, and a deep commitment to coldwater conservation to serve as the organization's...
  • NEW BOOK BY AWARD-WINNING WILDLIFE BIOLOGIST, BRUCE SMITH
    In a perilous place at the roof of the world, an orphaned mountain goat is rescued from certain death by a mysterious raven.This middle-grade novel,...
  • DESCHUTES LAND TRUST VOLUNTEER PROGRAM MANAGER
    The Deschutes Land Trust is seeking an experienced Volunteer Program Manager to join its dedicated team! Deschutes Land Trust conserves and cares for the lands...
  • PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    Now hiring a full-time, remote Program Director for the Society for Wilderness Stewardship! Come help us promote excellence in the professional practice of wilderness stewardship,...
  • WYOMING COMMUNITY PARTNERSHIPS COORDINATOR
    The Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership is seeking Coordinator to implement public education and advocacy campaigns in the Cowboy State to unite and amplify hunter, angler,...
  • MOUNTAIN LOTS FOR SALE
    Multiple lots in gated community only 5 miles from Great Sand Dunes National Park. Seasonal flowing streams. Year round road maintenance.
  • RURAL ACREAGE OUTSIDE SILVER CITY, NM
    Country living just minutes from town! 20 acres with great views makes a perfect spot for your custom home. Nice oaks and juniper. Cassie Carver,...
  • A FIVE STAR FOREST SETTING WITH SECLUSION AND SEPARATENESS
    This home is for a discerning buyer in search of a forest setting of premier seclusion & separateness. Surrounded on all sides by USFS land...