Good night, sweet trees

Sudden Aspen Decline is like a Shakespearean tragedy

  • Dead aspen stand near Fairplay, Colorado and Highway 285.

    William R. L. Anderegg
  • Reasearchrer, Alex Nees begins his ascent of an aspen tree to take canopy measurements.

    William R. L. Anderegg
  • Alex Nees in the canopy measuring aspen photosynthesis.

    William R. L. Anderegg
  • Trees afflicted by Sudden Aspen Decline in the San Juan National Forest, Colorado.

    William R. L. Anderegg
 

Page 2



August 10, 2009
The hot Colorado sun baked the dead aspen forest. There were none of the cotton-candy cumulus clouds that normally bring afternoon monsoons. My T-shirt grew damp and clung to my body. I leaned over and plunged the shovel into the soil again and again, turning over sections of rich black dirt. Pausing to sift through the drying clods, I sighed in frustration and kept on digging.

I was looking for young aspens and, more importantly, for the root networks in the soil that support them. When I finally found a root, I held it up to the sun. Like almost all of the others I'd found, it was brown, rotten and already dead. The empty canopy above me signaled the death of a stand of trees, but the surprising lack of re-growth and living root network in afflicted forests spelled an even darker future for whole forests of aspens. Turning the dead root over in my fingers, I pondered the mysteries that still shroud this die-off. Aspen root networks are thought to stay alive in the soil for hundreds or even thousands of years and have never before been observed dying en masse. The root death seems to accompany the canopy death across nearly a fifth of Colorado's aspen forests. It brought to mind what my mother said, on seeing the pollution from two nearby coal power plants that sometimes covers our corner of Colorado: We live in interesting times.

August 20, 2009
Returning to my hometown high school was like going back to my childhood camping spot: a mix of warmth and apprehension. I had failed to find budding aspens in the forest, but here I hoped to engage budding minds about the local forests, science and going to college. The biology classroom was packed with students and teachers, eagerly awaiting a presentation by my brother and me.

After my brother explained to the students why they should attend college and study science, I put up our most stunning pictures of aspen research. Examining the roots may be dirty, sweaty work, but studying the canopy can be spectacular. In one video, I ascend an aspen swaying wildly in the wind of an oncoming storm to recover a piece of scientific equipment that resembles a robot from The Matrix. After I told the story of aspen decline, explained the science of climate change, and detailed how severely it is expected to impact the West, we made an offer: Interested students could join our research crew the following summer. Hands went up, even among the teachers. This group would add to the 14 middle school and high school students from northern New Mexico who had already pledged to join us. Looking out over the classroom, I felt a brief surge of an emotion that had been absent all summer -- hope.

August 31, 2009
Flecks of yellow speckled the still-living aspen canopy in front of our final field research camp as the sun set. I took my final pictures and conducted my last measurements of the season, then sat down on the drying grass to read a few more passages of Shakespeare's Hamlet, which had been my summer reading.

I had come to realize that the story of the aspens is a Shakespearean tragedy still unfolding. The fate of the protagonist has not yet been written in stone, the trees are buffeted by forces beyond their control, and a combination of their own traits and the corruption of society will bring about their downfall. Early projections indicate that between 50 to 90 percent of aspen forests may disappear by the end of the century.

The most heartbreaking part of a Shakespearean tragedy is the fact that we know what's coming. Ultimately, this will be the story of climate change. Whether it's the loss of the world's coral reefs, drought-induced crop failure, or the death of entire forests, the story of the aspens will not be unique. Perhaps we can learn from this tree, a hallmark of our Western landscape, before it's too late.

In the still evening air filled with the soft calls of swallows and thrushes, I walked away from camp and into the aspen grove across the meadow. I ran my fingers across the dusty white bark and looked up at the trembling kaleidoscope above me. The wind whispered in the leaves and the crickets whirred. Like Horatio, I wanted to do something –– to warn Hamlet, to stave off the end of the tragedy. But I was the only one in the grove who knew the trees' time was running out, and how close we were coming to the end of the play.

William Anderegg grew up hiking, fishing and hunting throughout southwestern Colorado. He is currently a doctoral candidate at Stanford University, studying aspen decline and the impacts of climate change on ecosystems, and in his free time he writes fantasy novels.

High Country News Classifieds
  • FIGHTING FOR WILDLIFE
    Position Type: Community organizer; full-time, exempt Location: Bozeman, MT. Compensation: $50,000 Benefits: Medical stipend, vacation time, flexibility. Application Deadline: June 15th. Starting Date: July 1...
  • ENVIRONMENTAL ACTION PLAN COORDINATOR
    The Coeur d'Alene Tribe is hiring an Environmental Programs Manager in the Natural Resources Department. This position manages work in wetlands, brownfields, climate change, energy...
  • PROGRAM DIRECTOR - YELLOWSTONE TO YUKON CONSERVATION INITIATIVE
    About the Organization The Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative (Y2Y) is a joint Canada-U.S. not-for-profit organization with a mission to connect and protect wildlife habitat...
  • COMMUNICATIONS & DEVELOPMENT COORDINATOR
    Position Type: Full time, exempt Location: Bozeman, MT Compensation: $42,000 - $47,000 Benefits: Major Medical Insurance, up to 5% match on a 401k, PTO, flexible...
  • PARTNERSHIP & COLLABORATION DIRECTOR
    WEST REGION WILDFIRE COUNCIL- RIDGWAY, CO The partnership & collaboration director will provide leadership and/or assistance with all initiatives that create and enhance connections between...
  • 2 FIELD PROJECT SPECIALISTS (POSITION FORMERLY TITLED TRAIL CREW TECHNICAL ADVISOR)
    Are you passionate about environmental conservation and connecting people to the outdoors? The Pacific Crest Trail Association (PCTA) is looking for someone with outdoor leadership...
  • WATER STEWARD
    The Blackfoot Challenge is seeking a full-time Water Steward to coordinate and deliver a variety of partnerships and projects aimed at conserving and enhancing water...
  • SMALL FARM AT BASE OF MOUNT SHASTA, CALIF.
    Fruit/berry/veggie/flower farm in the mountain town of Mount Shasta. Small home, 2 barns (one with apartment), and more. Famously pure air and water.
  • 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...
  • POLICY & PLANNING SPECIALIST
    Position Type: Full time, exempt Location: Bozeman, MT highly preferred, remote negotiable Compensation: $50,000-54,000 Benefits: Major Medical Insurance, up to 5% match on a 401k,...
  • CONSERVATION PROGRAM MANAGER
    Illinois Valley SWCD is offering an incredible career opportunity in beautiful SW Oregon. .8+ FTE, plus benefits. Visit our website for full details.
  • DEVELOPMENT MANAGER
    Formed in 1980, Western Colorado Alliance for Community Action brings people together to build grassroots power through community organizing and leadership development. The Alliance works...
  • LITIGATION ASSISTANT, NORTHERN ROCKIES OFFICE - FULL-TIME BOZEMAN | REMOTE OPTION
    Visit our website to apply: earthjustice.org/about/jobs
  • BUFFALO NATIONS GRASSLANDS ALLIANCE SEEKING AN ASSESSMENT CONSULTANT
    ASSESSMENT OF THE SCOPE OF CONSERVATION PLANNING AND ACTIVITIES IN NATIVE NATIONS IN THE NORTHERN GREAT PLAINS Buffalo Nations Grasslands Alliance Buffalo Nations Grasslands Alliance...
  • CHIEF FINANCIAL OFFICER
    Rural Community Assistance Corporation seeks experienced CFO.
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Friends of Arches and Canyonlands Parks, the official philanthropic non-profit partner with the National Park Service Southeast Utah Group, is seeking an Executive Director....
  • GRAND CANYON MANAGER
    Application deadline: May 9, 2022 Anticipated start date: June 15, 2022 About the position Are you passionate about building authentic relationships, supporting tribally led initiatives,...
  • LAND CONSERVATION PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    Eastern Sierra Land Trust (ESLT) is seeking a Land Conservation Program Director to join our nationally accredited land trust. This is a full-time position based...
  • OUTREACH AND COMMUNICATIONS COORDINATOR
    Reports to: Communications and Outreach Director Location: Ashton, Idaho (partial remote schedule possible) Status: Full-time, 40 hours per week Timing and Duration: Position open until...
  • CHIEF OPERATING OFFICER
    The Western Landowners Alliance (WLA) was founded in 2012 by landowners and managers to increase the wellbeing of working lands in the American West and...