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These iconic pine trees have endured thousands of years to become the oldest living organisms on earth.
Photo: Rachid Dahnoun (Great Basin National Park)
Ancient Egyptians began constructing their pyramids 4,600 years ago. On the other side of the world, tucked away in the high country of what is now Great Basin National Park, a bristlecone pine had already been growing for several hundred years, putting into perspective the enduring qualities of Nevada’s most iconic natural phenomenon. This tree would experience thousands of years of harsh temperatures and brutal storms. With all of the hardships the tree faced, in the end it was no match for a man named Donald Rusk Curry.
A graduate student at the University of North Carolina, Curry was studying the Little Ice Age using tree-ring dating. During his research he took an interest in the bristlecone pine groves in Nevada’s Snake Range, specifically the grove beneath Wheeler Peak. After taking core samples from several of the trees, he found them to be more than 3,000 years old but was convinced that other trees within the grove were older still.
One tree in particular that had Curry’s attention was named WPN-114, now known as Prometheus. While taking a core sample of the tree, his tool broke. Unable to retrieve it and with field season coming to a close, Curry asked permission from the Forest Service to fell the tree. Shockingly, authorization was granted, and in August of 1964 the tree was cut down. Once analyzed, it was discovered to be more than 4,900 years old. Curry had just killed the oldest-known living organism on the planet.
As news spread of Curry’s action, controversy grew. Some scientists contend that the tree was far too old to have been relevant to Curry’s research. The Little Ice Age only dates back 600 years, and a younger tree would have provided sufficient data for his work. Nevertheless, the deed was done, and conservation and awareness of the bristlecone grew. Many argue that the cutting of Prometheus was one of the major factors in Great Basin achieving national-park status in 1986.
While Prometheus is now just a memory, hundreds of bristlecones are still growing in Great Basin National Park in three major groves: Mount Washington, Eagle Peak, and Wheeler Peak. The Wheeler Peak Grove is the most accessible and can be reached via a 2.8-mile round-trip hike starting at the end of Wheeler Peak Scenic Drive. The views from the trail are stunning and the trees spectacular. Their gnarled, twisted trunks are a true testament to the adversity they have borne.
WHERE TO FIND BRISTLECONES?
According to a recent article in Northeastern Nevada Historical Society Quarterly, in addition to the groves that exist in Great Basin National Park, “many of the higher ranges in central Nevada contain bristlecone pine. The Hot Creek Range is a good example. ...Bristlecone pine also grows in the south Ruby Mountains and the crest and north-facing slopes of the Goshute and Pequop Mountains.”
Great Basin National Park