About a hundred scientists and land managers from the western United States and Canada gathered at Utah State University’s Restoring the West Conference Sept. 16-18 to discuss an alarming trend in western forests. Aspen trees, iconic fixtures of the Rocky Mountain West and key elements of western ecosystems, are declining in large numbers; scientists want to know why.
A phenomenon called Sudden Aspen Decline or “SAD” is one concern, said Paul Rogers, director of the USU-based Western Aspen Alliance and a conference organizer.
SAD refers to widespread, severe and rapid dieback and mortality of aspen stands. The problem has increased rapidly in recent years – especially in western Colorado and the Four Corners region. Scientists believe SAD could be triggered by drought but say the phenomenon is only one component of what could be part of a much larger trend.
“Many factors are influencing contemporary aspen stands,” said Rogers, who serves as an adjunct faculty member in USU’s College of Natural Resources. “Climate change, insects, disease, wildfire, wildlife, livestock, genetic make-up, human actions and other factors have a direct impact on aspen stand health.”
During the conference, participants gathered for an open meeting of the newly formed Western Aspen Alliance. Supported by a gift from the S.J. and Jessie E. Quinney Foundation, WAA (pronounced “way”) is a partnership between USU’s College of Natural Resources and the USDA-Forest Service Rocky Mountain Research Station. The alliance is intended to facilitate effective and appropriate management of aspen ecosystems in the western United States through coordinated scientific efforts and shared information.
“We welcome input from state and federal agencies, other universities, individuals and private entities,” Rogers said. “We want to develop a cross-disciplinary network of researchers willing to take on pertinent aspen topics including SAD, aspen physiology, disturbance ecology, water yield, genetics, biodiversity issues and more.”
“WAA will provide a much-needed base, a home, a foundation for aspen research and restoration,” said Johan du Toit, head of USU’s Department of Wildland Resources. He noted Utah State’s deep expertise in varied areas of aspen research, ranging from basic research to applied management.
The conference was organized and sponsored by WAA, USU’s Ecology Center, Department of Wildland Resources, College of Natural Resources and Cooperative Extension and the Utah Agricultural Experiment Station, and by the USDA-Forest Service Rocky Mountain Research Station and State and Private Forestry.