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Precious Heritage > Executive Summary
Precious Heritage: The Status of Biodiversity in the United
Edited by Bruce A. Stein, Lynn S. Kutner, and Jonathan S. Adams
Oxford University Press. Published March 2000.
416 pages; 230 color photos & 109 color line illustrations.
List price $45. Available at bookstores nationwide or through the publisher.
A vast land of contrasts, the United States harbors an extraordinary
diversity of life, from the lush forests of Appalachia to the frozen tundra
of Alaska, and from the Midwest's tallgrass prairies to Hawaii's rainforests.
Precious Heritage reveals the nation's biological wealth in unprecedented
detail, drawing together for the first time more than a quarter century of information
from the network of state natural heritage programs. Sponsored by NatureServe
and The Nature Conservancy, this richly illustrated volume not only documents
the enormous breadth of U.S. species and ecosystems, but also considers how
they are faring, what is threatening them, and what is needed to protect our
nation's natural inheritance.
The Good News
The United States emerges from this assessment as being far
richer in species and ecosystems than previously thought, and as a global center
of diversity for many life-forms.
- More than 200,000 species are now known from the United States-a figure
double the previous estimate. This figure, however, includes only those species
that scientists have formally studied and named, and may represent fewer than
half the plants, animals, and microbes yet to be discovered in the United
- A surprising number of life forms are more diverse in the United States
than anywhere else on Earth. The nation is particularly rich in aquatic life,
such as fishes, turtles, salamanders, and mussels. For example, more fish
species are found in a single river, the Tennessee, than in all of Europe.
- The United States also supports a broader array of ecosystems than any
other nation on Earth. Several large-scale ecosystems are especially well
represented, and the United States hosts a large percentage of the world's
broadleaf forests, temperate grasslands, and Mediterranean-climate vegetation.
The Bad News
- The United States' exceptional richness of life is not faring well, however,
and Precious Heritage documents the continuing decline of the nation's
flora and fauna.
- One-third of U.S. species are at risk and of conservation concern. Aquatic
life is particularly vulnerable; for instance, nearly 70% of the nation's
freshwater mussel species and over half of our crayfishes are in trouble.
- More than 500 U.S. species are already extinct or missing. Of these, at
least 100 plants and animals have disappeared forever and are presumed extinct,
while another 439 are missing and feared lost.
- Nearly 60% of the United States outside of Alaska has lost most of its natural
vegetation, and habitat destruction is the leading threat to U.S. species.
Alien species invasions-like zebra mussels and kudzu-are second only to habitat
loss as a cause of species declines.
Priorities for Conservation
Precious Heritage offers far more than a litany of
losses, though, focusing instead on the considerable opportunities for conservation
that still exist. Indeed, the detailed information on U.S. species and ecosystems
that made publication of this book possible also provides a sound basis for
setting priorities for conservation efforts.
Important biodiversity is found across the United States,
but an innovative analysis of the nation's rarest species identifies several
biological hot spots where conservation efforts will be particularly needed.
Regions harboring exceptional concentrations of imperiled biodiversity range
from the Hawaiian Islands and Florida Panhandle to California's central and
southern coasts, and from the rivers of southern Appalachia to the deserts and
springs around Death Valley.
To avoid squandering the country's biological riches will
require a far more concerted and systematic effort than has characterized our
nation's conservation efforts to date. Although a focus on individual imperiled
species will often be necessary to stave off impending extinctions, conservation
increasingly must be planned for and carried out at larger scalesfrom
ecosystems and landscapes to entire regions. As a nation we must move beyond
protecting the scenic "rock and ice" parks that characterized early
conservation efforts, and turn our focus instead towards those often overlooked
landscapes that are perhaps not as visually stunning yet are biologically spectacular.
Several efforts to identify and protect such landscapes are already underway,
and this volume offers a glimpse of these still-emerging blueprints for conserving
the full array of the nation's rich natural heritage.
Precious Heritage provides a rigorous scientific assessment
of the state of the nation's species and ecosystems, yet evokes the beauty,
fascination, and mystery of the nation's living resources. Above all, the book
is a celebration of the extraordinary biological diversity of the United States.
TO ORDER A COPY OF PRECIOUS HERITAGE:
Order through your local bookstore or online bookseller, or
through the publisher, Oxford University Press.
Precious Heritage is also available at Amazon.com.