The Extinct Tree

The following is a Short Story about Bureaucracy. It was excerpted from Routing the Golf Course, by Forrest Richardson (©John Wiley & Sons, 2002)

"Hello, this is Professor Glückinspell. Is this Forrest?" Professor Glückinspell had only called once before, and it was a strange time for him to call. It was considerably earlier in Hawaii. The professor said that up near the sixth hole, off to the left of the green near an outcropping of lava, he had found some plants that needed further study.

This addition brought the total of protected species of plants to three at this mountainside site undergoing planning. We had previously agreed to protect species by installing irrigation heads all around a single tree in case the lava-covered slopes above the ocean ever caught fire. I recalled sitting in a meeting several months earlier when the representative of a state agency pointed out that the state would approve the routing plan only if we installed this irrigation protection and oh, by the way, he knew we could use only treated effluent to water the course, which would probably not be good for the tree. When asked if it might not be better to run a separate line of potable water to provide emergency water should the lava rock catch fire, he said that it would violate such-and-such an agreement to use only effluent on the parcel designated as golf course. The second tree species we had to protect was off to the side and would not be affected by the proposed 27-hole golf complex.

"I am not sure," the Professor continued, "but this may very well be a new species! None of us has ever seen it before." I shared in the professor's enthusiasm. It is not every day that a new plant is discovered, at least not on the projects I work on. I asked Glückinspell what the discovery meant in terms of delays. I was not trying to be callous, just practical. The Professor explained that new species would not necessarily precipitate a delay but that we would have to protect the small trees and possibly shift the green away from the area to avoid impact. I was disappointed, but the effort seemed worthwhile. A new plant was indeed worthy of protection, as are all plants, whenever it is practical.

I called Jack Snyder, with whom I'd been working on the project, and told him the news. We decided to adjust the entire hole. Our duty was obvious: The tree, no matter how small and insignificant, needed to be left alone. And so we left it, even creating a better hole by taking advantage of a higher tee point and a sharper angle to the new green site, now farther right and past the site of the unknown tree.

Several days later, Glückinspell called again. "Hello, this is Professor Glückinspell, and I have good news for you." And that's when I received the greatest lesson in bureaucracy idiocy I could ever hope to get. The Professor explained that before sending leaf samples and DNA evidence to claim a new species, he and his staff made one final check of records at the University of Hawaii for some historical reference to the thin-leafed, spindly half-bush, half-tree plant — and they found, on a page numbered beyond 500 in an old dusty book, a perfect illustration of the tree. Personally, I was disappointed; I thought the Professor deserved a tree. But, as the Professor explained, the tree had been declared extinct in 1934 — so its protection was no longer an issue.

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