- Associated Press - Friday, May 27, 2016

LAS VEGAS (AP) - On the fourth floor of a research facility at the University of Arizona, the remnants of a famous Nevada tree anchors a display on one of modern science’s most notorious blunders.

Arizona’s Laboratory of Tree-Ring Research calls it the Currey Tree after Donald Currey, the researcher at the center of the controversy. But most people know the beloved bristlecone pine by another name: Prometheus.

Currey was a graduate student in the summer of 1964 when he came to eastern Nevada’s Snake Mountains to study ancient trees and prehistoric climate change, the Las Vegas Review-Journal reported (http://bit.ly/1U7MwuA).

During his fieldwork, he persuaded the U.S. Forest Service to cut down a large bristlecone near the tree line on Wheeler Peak so he could count its rings and chart its history.

Currey’s casualty turned out to be approximately 4,900 years old, making it the oldest known tree on Earth at the time.

“The cutting of the so-called oldest tree in the world just dismayed people, and it was a major learning episode,” said Gretchen Baker, ecologist for Great Basin National Park.

The incident prompted tighter restrictions on the destruction of old trees and contributed to the eventual creation of the national park 300 miles northeast of Las Vegas.

Currey would go on to a distinguished career in geography, where he was known among academics for his extensive research on the relics of ancient Lake Bonneville in the eastern Great Basin region. But Prometheus would haunt him until his death in 2004.

His story has taken on an almost mythic quality - one fueled by the tree’s dizzying age and the folly of killing it to learn how long it had lived.

According to some accounts, the first man the Forest Service brought in to do the job took one look at the tree and refused to start his chainsaw, delaying the job until the next day so another crew could be found.

Several of those involved in the tree’s dissection are said to have later died under unusual circumstances.

“There’s enough mystery to keep people interested,” Baker said.

But there’s no mystery to why the lab at the University of Arizona ended up with a piece of Prometheus.

“That is the pre-eminent tree-dating lab in the country,” Baker said. “They have done a lot of the age-dating on bristlecones throughout the West.”

In 2013, researchers there took a fresh look at Currey’s tree and determined it to be older than previously thought, something on the order of 5,000 years.

“No other bristlecones, living or dead, are known to have reached this age,” according to the display beneath the lab’s cross section of Prometheus.

Another piece of the tree is on display at the main visitor center at Great Basin National Park; a third slab of the wood decorates the aptly named Bristlecone Convention Center in Ely.

Ed Spear, the convention center’s executive director, said the tree has been there for decades, though it spent a few years in the lobby of Ely’s Hotel Nevada.

He said they get inquiries about it “pretty regularly,” including the occasional call from outside the country.

Spear is happy to tell people what he knows and defend the tree’s honor when necessary. Like when people bring up much older “clonal colonies” of plants, including a ring of creosote bushes in the California desert that’s said to be 11,700 years old.

“If it’s a clone, it’s not older. It’s a copy,” Spear said.

The stump and part of the trunk of Prometheus can still be found high on the rocky slope of Wheeler Peak, about a mile from the park’s Bristlecone Trail.

Baker said she hasn’t been there in a while, but she knows people who go every year and “leave prayer offerings” on the stump.

You have to know where to look. The spot doesn’t appear on any park maps, and there are no signs or trails leading to it. Park officials don’t advertise the exact location because they want to protect what’s left from vandals and souvenir hunters.

“And it’s not an easy place to get to,” Baker said.

Though she’s heard the tale of Prometheus dozens of times now, Baker said she loves to hear new versions of it, especially from a skilled storyteller in the proper mountain setting.

“It’s a great drama,” she said. “It’s like one of those campfire stories that keeps getting better.”

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