Threatened by climate change, a Utah aspen grove may be here only today, gone tomorrow

Story and photos by Chris Vanocur

Climate change is changing the way I travel. I can no longer visit a place and simply see it as it is. Instead, I imagine how that place will look in 10 or 20 years. Perhaps, in the future, that place won’t even exist at all.

On a recent trip to Norway, I caught myself wondering if picturesque fjord towns will survive the planet’s rising waters. In Japan, I worried about changing climate conditions creating more typhoons. And, yes, even in Utah, I am now viewing scenic places in the future tense, not just the present or the past.

Pando is one such place. It’s one of the names for the breathtaking aspen grove in the Fishlake National Forest. It’s been a bit trendy to write about lately, with plenty of local articles featuring these lovely trees. Even The New York Times Magazine featured some amazing pictures of it earlier this year.

But I didn’t make the four-hour drive from Salt Lake to fill your head with the usual recitation of Pando facts: that there are more than 47,000 trees, that it is a “clonal” grove with trees having identical genetics and interconnected roots, or that it is believed to be the largest organism in the world.

No, I wanted to see Pando because I wasn’t sure how much longer it would be around. Various threats, including drought, have prompted concern about the future of these magnificent aspens. As I viewed them through concerned climate-change glasses, I couldn’t help but notice how some trees are already being fenced off to protect them from nature’s ills.

However, thinking about climate change while traveling isn’t the downer it might seem to be. I now find myself focusing even more intently on Earth’s treasures. The possible demise of an area serves to draw me in even closer. I find myself appreciating these places more precisely because they are threatened.

In fact, this is exactly what happened when I was taking pictures of Pando’s beautiful fall colors. A slight breeze blew through the aspens behind me. I turned around just in time to see and hear the rustling of golden leaves. This is the magical sound of quaking aspens. This is why Pando is also known as the “trembling giant.” Such a heavenly natural noise filled me with awe. But it also made me a bit melancholy as I pictured a muted world without these trees.

If you don’t make it to Pando in the spring, summer or fall, winter remains an option. While the colorful aspen leaves may not be there, a Forest Service worker told me the area is actually quite appealing during Utah’s colder months. There is snowmobiling, cross-country skiing, snowshoeing and ice fishing. And if you’re worried about getting there, don’t be. I was told the southern part of State Road 25 that runs through Pando is plowed and open during the winter (but the northern section is not).

If you’re thinking about a long weekend trip, Capitol Reef is also just a red stone’s throw away. Overnighting in Torrey gave me an excuse to try out the Southwest fusion cuisine of Cafe Diablo, which unfortunately will be on hiatus should you try to dine there mid-November through the end of March. But you’ll find other local eateries in Torrey worth checking out over the winter.

As I prepared to say goodbye to Pando, my thoughts turned to a New York Times article I had read just days before heading to Fishlake. It was about the beloved baobab trees of Senegal. They are also being threatened by climate change. It’s estimated Senegal has lost 50 percent of its baobab population in the last half century. I couldn’t help but think these old and wise African trees were spiritually connected to the aspens of Pando. They both possess a certain indescribable beauty, not to mention uncertain fates.

Looking at and listening to Utah’s Pando, I was struck by another wistful thought. Like the Trembling Giant before me, I, too, might be in the autumn of my life. Nearing 60, my branches have also begun shedding their leaves and, like the aspens and the baobabs, my roots aren’t as strong as they used to be. Who knows how many travel adventures I have left in store.

But there is one not-so-insignificant blessing here. My advancing years, along with the awareness that climate change brings, have given me a more heightened and appreciative way of looking at and loving the world in which we live. Simply put, this new perspective has allowed me to see the forest for the trees.