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Romancing the clone.

Even the "humongous fungus" pales in comparison to this hillsides of incestuous aspens.

Utah's Fishlake National Forest, remotely situated and sparsely known, has not exactly glowed in the national limelight. Despite its claims of "unique" geology, "fine" rainbow trout, and "outstanding" Fish Lake, the forest has been basically a place where down-mountain folks come to cool off and wet a line in the summer.

Imagine the surprise of forest officers when, late last year, The New York Times ran 30 column inches and a bounteous supporting editorial on a "happening" right in their obscure mountains. And imagine their further excitement when "Good Morning America," Time, the Denver Post, and a string of U.S. and Canadian radio stations also hearkened to "breaking news" there.

Turns out that Fishlake National Forest, astraddle the western Rockies 150 miles south of Salt Lake City, had grown a clone to end all clones. A far more imposing organism than the blue whale (weighing around 400,000 pounds), this living entity is reportedly more than three times heavier than the world's most massive Sequoiadendron giganteum tree in the Sierra Nevadas of California.

Moreover, it's comfortably 60 times heavier than Michigan's recently notable, 38-acre "humongous fungus" (more properly identified as Armillaria bulbosa), which titillated organism watchers and got itself on a lot of T-shirts a few months ago.

Alas, the "happening" wasn't really a discovery per se. It was triggered by a letter written by three University of Colorado organismic biology professors that appeared in the British publication Nature last November. Noting, perhaps with a tad of defensive forethought, that "Extremism in the pursuit of science is no vice," the Coloradans nominated the unspectacular Populus tremuloides, alias quaking aspen, as "the largest living organism whether measured by area or mass."

And there was this little add-on: "At least one clone in the western United States ... is nearly three times the area reported for Armillaria."

Seems that a particular stand of "quakies," high in the mountains near Fish Lake, had cloned (or reproduced asexually) to the tune of some 47,000 stems, attaining a collective overall weight of around 6,000 tons. All this on one little 106-acre patch of mountainside.

Which hands-down buried the lowly Michigan fungus, presumably for all time.

The Utah find is so recent, in fact, that the Guiness Book of World Records has yet to place that wonder between "cliffs" and "clouds" in its annals.

No matter that University of Colorado professors Michael Grant, Jeffry Mitton, and Yan Linhart, who crafted the Nature letter, had never been within miles of the aspens they nominated. Seems they had merely picked up a musty 1975 scientific article by Dr. Burton Barnes of the University of Michigan, and then had jawed about it over coffee and doodled out some weight estimates.

Barnes, they noted in all fairness, had made a trip to Fishlake National Forest and noted similarities in "bark, leaf shape, and stem angle," and on that basis had pronounced the 106-acre stand a clone, with all the trees supposedly interconnecting through their root systems, via new sprouts called "ramets."

And never mind that no high-tech DNA genetic "fingerprinting" experts have yet ventured to the 8,000-foot-high location to take tissue samples, and thus to confirm genetic sameness to drive home the stand's true "clonality."

After phones at Fishlake National Forest had quieted down from all the media hype, Michael Grant, senior author of the letter to Nature, called a spade a spade in a conversation with American Forests.

"Scientifically, this isn't particularly important, but this clone gets before the public in a way it wouldn't otherwise. And besides, we were just making a nomination. Someone else can come up with something larger if they can find it."

In case you'd like to see the current king of clones this summer, drive on Interstate 70 to Richfield, Utah (about 40 miles east of Interstate 15), and stop at forest headquarters. Ask for the location of Fish Lake, about one hour into the mountains, and from there hike up Doctor Canyon (about a half-mile) to a point between Stag Spring and Buck Flat. Voila, you'll be smack in the middle of Clonesville, USA.

Until someone nominates something clonier, that is.

Herbert McLean of Eastsound, Washington, is a frequent contributor with other features in this issue.
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Copyright 1993, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:quaking aspen in Utah's Fishlake National Forest
Author:McLean, Herbert E.
Publication:American Forests
Date:May 1, 1993
Previous Article:New ecology, global change, and forest politics.
Next Article:The future of forestry: two views from the top.

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