The Tragedy of Prometheus, a Bristlecone Pine
An appalling story of careless "non-caretaking", from the
Trackers mailing list on the Internet
Wheeler Peak, on Nevada's eastern border with Utah, reaches an
altitude of 13,063 feet (3981m) with a spectacular glacial cirque on its northeast side.
Highpoint of the Snake Range, Wheeler Peak cycles through five life zones, from the hot
stony desert to alpine tundra, all within a five mile line. Along the edge of this cirque
is the home of colossal bristlecone pines. Standing as they have for millennia, in their
fields of stone, they overlook the desert far below.
The 1957 Schulman discovery of old bristlecones in California brought
much attention to the bristlecones in the Wheeler area. With park development in mind, the
Nevada congressional delegation asked the National Park Service for a study of the area.
Some initial research was done but months went by with no further movement.
A local group that included author-conservationist Darwin Lambert was
established and together they formed the Great Basin National Park Association. Lambert
and this group believed the bristlecones of Wheeler to be every bit as old as those in
California and worked hard to get scientific research to the area. The University of
Nevada showed some interest but money was short and the theory that the oldest trees were
in the White Mountains of California left the group without the support they needed.
Lambert and his friends were long-time travellers to Wheeler Peak, and many of its
bristlecones were lovingly given names by members of the group -- names like
"Buddha" and "Socrates". One tree was named "Prometheus"
(pronounced: Pra-me-thee-us) after the Greek mythical character Titan, who gave fire and
arts to mankind but was chained to a mountain for thousands of years by the gods for doing
The Association failed to get the research project, but the colossal
trees along with the great beauty of the area was enough to bring attention to the
Advisory Board on National Parks who endorsed the area as worthy of consideration. Bills
were introduced in both houses of Congress and their passing seemed imminent, but grazing,
mining and hunting special interests intervened, and the legislation failed. Legislative
efforts continued year after year without success.
One day, while reading a newsletter clipping from the University of
North Carolina, Lambert was dealt an almost unbelievable blow. He had stumbled upon a
story that escaped the public and conservationists alike. Late in the year of 1964 a young
geographer, Donald R. Currey, a student at this university, who was working toward his
doctorate, was in the Southwest searching for evidence of Ice Age glaciers. The Wheeler
Peak glacier and related phenomena attracted him. When this student and his associate came
upon the bristlecones at the timberline, they began to take core samples from several
trees, discovering one to be over 4,000 years old! Needless to say they were excited, and
at some point, their only coring tool broke. The end of the field season was nearing. They
asked for (and I still can't believe it!) were granted permission by the U.S. Forest
Service to cut the tree down. It was "Prometheus".
After cutting the trunk at a convenient level, which happened to be
more than eight feet above the original base, 4,844 rings were counted. This student had
just killed the oldest living thing on earth! Eventually, dendrochronologists determined
the tree to be 4,950 years of age.
It took a couple of years for the death of "Prometheus" to
spread across the U.S., and with all the protests that took place, the U.S. Forest Service
finally took an interest in bristlecone security. The scientific community tightened the
already strict control under its supervision. Of particular concern to scientists is the
"deadwood" on the ground so prized by collectors for profit. Bristlecone
deadwood can lay on the ground for thousands of years after the tree that produced it has
died, thereby making it important in tree-ring chronologies. The Wheeler Peak bristlecones
were finally in the spotlight. A member of the park association said, "Prometheus
might become widely enough known as a martyr to save other ancients."
Bristlecone pine groves are found at elevations up to 11,000 feet
(3352m) in six states, in both national forests and unappropriated public lands. Public
interest had to be heightened to control the depredations, and had become urgent.
In 1986 The Great Basin
National Park was established and the association that started the process, so many
years earlier, had finally reached its goal.