August 6, 1964: Doh! World’s Oldest Tree Cut Down Unnecessarily!

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A Brief History

On August 6, 1964, a University of North Carolina graduate student studying climate cut down the oldest known tree in the world, the 5,000-year-old “Prometheus,” a Bristlecone Pine located on Wheeler Peak in Nevada.  The icing on the cake?  The U.S. Forest Service allowed it!

Digging Deeper

Why would anyone cut down the oldest tree on Earth while it was still healthy and sound?  There are quite a few answers to that question, and conflicting ones at that.  Various stories have circulated as to why the tree was cut down instead of just a core sample taken.  These range from: 1) broken coring tools; 2) to not realizing how old the tree was; 3) to unsatisfactory core samples having been taken and 4) to needing to cut the tree down to get more precise data.

The graduate student, Donald Curry, was preparing a thesis on the “Little Ice Age,” a subject that should have only required about 600 years of tree rings to study.

Later revelations that he was actually studying the past 2000 years might explain his desire to chop down the whole tree.  In any case, Curry and the Forest Service personnel that accompanied him were apparently not aware that Prometheus was the oldest known tree.

The actual age of Prometheus is unknown, and only a close approximation can be made because the core near the bottom of the stump is not totally intact.  By counting the growth rings at a given level and then calculating the amount of years the tree took to get to that height, a good estimate can be made.  Tree rings are formed every year, and the relative thickness or thinness of each ring can be analyzed to give scientists information about the climate at the time each ring was formed.

The disaster of unnecessarily destroying such an old tree led to actions being taken to protect old Bristlecone Pines.  In 2012 an even older Bristlecone Pine, believed to be 5,062 years old, was found in California.  These trees are the oldest known living organisms on Earth, that is, organisms that still have their oldest bits and pieces on the plant.  Note:  There are other plants, such as the Quaking Aspens (also known as American Aspens), that are as old as 80,000 years, but these consist of parts that are constantly regenerating.  Thus, even though the trees have stood on the same spot for thousands of years, no single portion of any tree is very old at any given time.  They are what are called clonal colonies where a single tree grown from a seed sends out shoots underground that sprout up as “new” trees, allowing an entire forest to basically consist of just one tree.

Our natural heritage is threatened by the ever-expanding population of humans and must be consciously protected if it is to survive.  Hopefully, disasters like cutting down Prometheus will be few and far between.  Question for students (and subscribers): Do you think ancient trees are worth saving?  Let us know why or why not in the comments section below this article.

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Historical Evidence

For more information, please watch…

History — History Sunday Little Ice Age: Big Chill.  A&E Television Networks, 2010.  DVD.

History Sunday Little Ice Age.  A&E Home Video, 2005.  DVD.


About Author

Major Dan is a retired veteran of the United States Marine Corps. He served during the Cold War and has traveled to many countries around the world. Prior to his military service, he graduated from Cleveland State University, having majored in sociology. Following his military service, he worked as a police officer eventually earning the rank of captain prior to his retirement.