A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson

Posted: January 2, 2011 in Book Notes
Tags: , ,
  • The Forest Service is truly an extraordinary institution.
    • A lot of people, seeing that word forest in the title, assume it has something to do with looking after trees.
    • These were not intended to be parks. Private companies would be granted leases to extract minerals and harvest timber, but they would be required to do so in a restrained, intelligent, sustainable way.
    • In fact, mostly what the Forest Service does is build road.
      • There are 378,000 miles of roads in America’s national forests – 8 times the total mileage of America’s interstate highway system.
      • It is the largest road system in the world in the control of a single body.
      • The reason the Forest Service builds these roads is to allow private timber companies to get to previously inaccessible stands of trees.
    • What it delicately calls “scientific forestry” – clear-cutting to you and me – is not only a brutal visual affront to any landscape but brings huge, reckless washoffs that gully the soil, robbing it of nutrients and disrupting ecologies farther downstream, sometimes for miles. This isn’t science. This is rape.
    • 80% of its leasing arrangements lost money, often vast amounts.
      • In one typical deal, the Forest Service sold hundred-year-old lodgepole pines in the Targhee National Forest in Idaho for about $2 each after spending $4 per tree surveying the land, drawing up contracts, and, of course, building roads.
    • Between 1989 and 1997, it lost an average of $242 million a year.
  • Appalachian Trail is deprivation, that the whole point of the experience is to remove yourself so thoroughly from the conveniences of everyday life that the most ordinary things – processed cheese, a can of pop gorgeously beaded with condensation – fill you with wonder and gratitude.
  • The National Park Service actually has something of a tradition of making things extinct.
    • Altogether, 42 species of mammal have disappeared from America’s national park this century.
    • Today the National Park Service employs a more casual approach to endangering wildlife: neglect.
      • It spends almost nothing – less than 3% of its budget – on research of any type, which is why no one knows how many mussels are extinct or even why they are going extinct.
    • Ask a park official what they are doing about it and he will say, “We are monitoring the situation closely.” For this, read: “We are watch them die.”
    • In 1991, as its trees were dying, its buildings crumbling, its visitors being turned away from campgrounds it could not afford to keep open, and its employees being laid off in record numbers, the National Park Service threw a 75th anniversary party for itself in Vail, Colorado. It spent $500,000 on the event.
  • For all its mass, a tree is a remarkably delicate thing.
    • All of its internal life exists within three paper-thin layers of tissue – the phloem, xylem, and cambium – just beneath the bark, which together form a moist sleeve around the dead heartwood.
    • These three diligent layers of cells perform all the intricate science and engineering needed to keep a tree alive, and the efficiency with which they do it is one of the wonders of life.
    • However tall it grows, a tree is just a few pounds of living cells thinly spread between roots and leaves.
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