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Donald Rusk Currey, the US Forest Service , and Prometheus

Umpire

Posted 12:30 pm, 08/06/2012

Prometheus was a living member of a population of bristlecone pine trees growing near the tree line on of a former glacier on Wheeler Peak, in Great Basin National Park, eastern Nevada. Wheeler Peak is the highest mountain in the Snake Range, and the highest mountain entirely within the state of Nevada. Prometheus grew in an area reachable only by off-trail hiking. In either 1958 or 1961, a group of naturalists who admired the grove in which the tree grew gave names to a number of the largest or most distinctive trees.

Donald R. Currey was a graduate student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill studying the climate dynamics of the Little Ice Age. In 1963 he became aware of the bristlecone populations in the Snake Range in general, and on Wheeler Peak in particular. Based on the size, growth rate and growth forms of some of the trees he became convinced that some very old specimens existed on the mountain, cored some of them, and found trees exceeding 3,000 years old.

However, in 1964, Currey was not able to obtain a continuous series of overlapping cores from Prometheus.Here, stories diverge. It is not clear whether Currey requested, or Forest Service personnel suggested, that he cut down and section the tree in lieu of being able to core it. There is also some uncertainty as to why a core sample could not be obtained.

Another uncertainty is that it is not clear why the felling of such an old tree was necessary given the topic Currey was studying. Since the Little Ice Age started no more than 600 years ago, many trees could presumably have provided the information he was seeking for that time period.

Whatever the rationale, the tree was cut down and sectioned, and several pieces of the sections hauled out to be processed and analyzed, first by Currey, then by others in later years. Sections, or pieces of sections have ended up in various places, some of which are publicly accessible, including the Great Basin National Park visitor center (Baker, Nevada), the Ely Convention Center (Ely, Nevada), the University of Arizona Laboratory of Tree-Ring Research (Tucson, Arizona), and the US Forest Service's Institute of Forest Genetics (Placerville, California).

What was found out was the tree, which was at least 4862 years old and possibly more than 5000 years, was the oldest known non-clonal organism ever discovered.

Prometheus was cut down on this date in 1964.

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