Bruce A. Stein, Lynn S. Kutner, Jonathan S. Adams , editors. 2000 . The Nature Conservancy and Association for Biodiversity Information. Oxford University Press , New York . 399 pages . $45.00. ISBN 0-19-512519-3 .

People interested in conservation often are led to believe that all the biodiversity is in the tropics. Some 50% of all species are estimated to exist in tropical rainforests alone. Most of the global hotspots of biodiversity recognized by such groups as Conservation International are tropical, with a handful in Mediterranean climates. Such statistics tend to give those involved in conservation in the United States and other temperate areas an inferiority complex. Are we wasting our time trying to protect and restore habitats here when all the action is closer to the equator?

Precious Heritage sets the record straight by demonstrating beyond all doubt that the U.S. is globally significant for its biodiversity values. Contrary to the “normal” pattern where species richness increases with decreasing latitude, several groups of organisms reach their highest diversity on earth in the U.S. These groups include freshwater mussels and snails, mayflies, stoneflies, caddis flies, salamanders, freshwater turtles, and cave biota. We are second only to China in diversity of gymnosperms and have more freshwater fish than any other temperate zone country—about 800 species, compared to only 193 in all of Europe. Moreover, our total species richness is higher than once thought. Until recently, some 100,000 described species were estimated to occur in the U.S., with another 100,000 or so yet to be described. The new estimate, presented in this book, is more than 204,700 described species and a total species richness ranging from 300,000 to 600,000. Beyond species, the U.S. has more biomes and ecoregions than any other country and is home to the tallest (coast redwood) and most massive (giant sequoia) organisms on earth.

This book represents the dedicated effort of two science-oriented conservation groups: The Nature Conservancy and its new spin-off organization, the Association for Biodiversity Information. The book's preface, written by Deborah Jensen and Thomas Breden, correctly credits Bob Jenkins, The Nature Conservancy's first science director, with setting in motion the process that led to this book. Jenkins established the natural heritage programs, which now operate in all fifty U.S. states and many Canadian provinces and Latin American countries. These programs compile and organize information on the “elements of diversity” (such as rare species and plant communities) on which informed conservation decisions can be made. This book demonstrates the broad utility of heritage data, from answering basic questions of biogeography to engaging in sophisticated conservation planning on ecoregional to national scales.

The book is organized into 11 chapters. Two introductory chapters review the concept of biodiversity, the history of science-based conservation in the U.S., and, in considerable detail, the organization and applicability of heritage program databases. Chapter 3, by Bruce Stein and coauthors, is one of the most engaging chapters. It offers a scholarly review of biogeography and biodiversity in the U.S., including key events in geological history that explain current patterns of diversity. Chapter 4, by Lawrence Masters and coauthors, summarizes the conservation status of species in the U.S., whereas Chapter 5, by Bruce Stein and coauthors, reviews geographic patterns of diversity, rarity, and endemism by state and taxonomic group. In Chapter 6, Stephen Chaplin and coauthors present substantial information on the geography of imperilment and employ a “rarity-weighted richness index” to identify biodiversity hotspots in the United States. The chapter concludes with brief but informative case histories of the top tier of hotspots: Hawaii, the San Francisco Bay area, coastal and interior southern California, Death Valley region, Southern Appalachia, and the Florida panhandle. Chapter 7, by Mark Bryer and coauthors, reviews patterns of diversity and imperilment of ecological systems, from plant associations to ecoregions. David Wilcove and coauthors, in Chapter 8, review the leading threats to biodiversity in the U.S., focusing on threats to imperiled species. The chapter contains excellent information but offers relatively little beyond the authors' 1998 paper in BioScience on the same topic. Chapter 9, by Michael Bean, is a brief but informative review of biodiversity protection tools. Chapter 10, by Craig Groves and coauthors, considers land ownership in relation to biodiversity patterns. Finally, in Chapter 11, Mark Shaffer and Bruce Stein summarize concepts from previous chapters, integrating them into a strategy for protecting biodiversity at multiple scales.

What does this book offer the restorationist? On the face of it, not much. Restoration is mentioned only briefly a few times in the book, for example, when it is pointed out that conservation strategies in such ecoregions as the Northern Tallgrass Prairie, where little natural area remains, must rely largely on restoration. Nevertheless, I believe this book provides something crucial to restorationists, as well as to others in the conservation community—a sense of the global significance of biodiversity in the U.S., including what we have as well as what we have lost. It will help us develop meaningful restoration models, targets, and goals. This book would be an ideal choice for a college course on biodiversity, especially if it were to be supplemented by articles that address biodiversity on other continents. I highly recommend this book to everyone interested in our natural heritage. It is an invaluable resource and fascinating to read.