The Value of Aspen Ecosystems

By Paul Rogers, Utah State University 

We often hear about the diverse values of aspen forests, but what evidence is there to support such assertions? Much of the "value" of aspen lies in its apparently innate beauty; a rich gold or fluttering green among the sea of conifer and sagebrush. Utah recently recognized aspen as its State Tree largely on the basis of esthetic appeal. Digging a little deeper, however, we can tap into, perhaps even monetize, other aspects of aspen worth. For example, aspen is among the most biodiverse vegetation types in the Intermountain West. Additionally, range managers are well aware of the high value forage resident among aspen groves. A diverse array of wildlife utilize aspen for cover, food, habitat, and water. There is some evidence that healthy aspen communities facilitate water conservation. Thriving beaver colonies create migrating water retention ponds, as well as raising water tables and increasing wildlife habitat. Aspen is valuable for a variety of wood products, including flooring, mine supports, particleboard, pet bedding, excelsior (wood fiber packaging and cooling devices), and ski/snowboard manufacturing. Aspen forests make for cherished camping and recreation destinations, popular ski resorts, and general tourism promotion. Finally, aspen may be used as a fire break via selective cutting or light burning around developed areas.

What is the value of aspen?  Ask any westerner if they could go without it.

Further Reading

Chong, G. W., S. E. Simonson, T. J. Stohlgren, and M. A. Kalkhan. 2001. Biodiversity: aspen stands have the lead, but will nonnative species take over? Pages 261-271 in Sustaining aspen in western landscapes. U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Research Station, 2000 June 13-15; Grand Junction, CO.

Fechner, G. H. and J. S. Barrows. 1976. Aspen stands as wildfire fuel breaks., Fort Collins, CO.

Griffis-Kyle, K. L. and P. Beier. 2003. Small isolated aspen stands enrich bird communities in southwestern ponderosa pine forests. Biological Conservation 110:375-385.

McCool, S. F. 2001. Quaking aspen and the human experience: dimensions, issues, and challenges. Pages 147-160 in Sustaining aspen in western landscapes: symposium proceedings, Grand Junction, Colorado, USA, June 13-15, 2000. Rocky-Mountain-Research-Station,-USDA-Forest-Service., Grand Junction, Colorado, USA.

Rogers, P. C. and R. J. Ryel. 2008. Lichen community change in response to succession in aspen forests of the Rocky Mountains, USA. Forest Ecology and Management 256:1760-1770.

Teichman, K. J., S. E. Nielsen, and J. Roland. 2013. Trophic cascades: linking ungulates to shrub-dependent birds and butterflies. Journal of Animal Ecology 82:1288-1299.