by Whit Gibbons

July 3, 2005

A porcupine may have as many as 30,000 quills; caribou are the only species of deer whose females have antlers; and mountain sheep have the biggest horns relative to their body size of any mammal. Aside from sharing the oddity spotlight, these three animals have something else in common. All are inhabitants of one or more of the national parks in the United States, and all these and many more species of mammals are featured in a recently released book.

The book, Mammals of the National Parks by John H. Burde and George A. Feldhamer, was published by Johns Hopkins University Press (2005) in cooperation with John and Renee Grisham's Oakwood Arts Trust. Considering the 212 pages of outstanding color photography and fine writing, the book is a real bargain at $24.95.

The book's layout is well designed for travelers who want to visit national parks in a particular region. Of the nearly 400 places that comprise the National Park System, 56 are officially "national parks." Their names and geographic distributions are shown on a reader-friendly color map and key at the beginning of the book. More than 45 of the national parks are west of the Mississippi River, Alaska winning the state record for the most (8), followed closely by California (7). The Congaree Swamp in South Carolina, a recent addition to the National Parks System, is the only national park found in the Coastal Plain between Acadia N.P. in Maine to the Everglades and Biscayne in southern Florida to the Big Bend in Texas. I’m not sure why other than that most of the eastern United States had already been despoiled by uncontrolled industrialization, urbanization, and agriculture.

The major portion of the book is divided into almost 100 pages of written accounts and photographs of the parks themselves. Specific facts about each park are of interest--Crater Lake in Oregon is the nation's deepest lake; 12 tons of petrified wood are stolen each year from the Petrified Forest in Arizona; and Great Sand Dunes in Colorado has the country's highest sand dunes. The next 100 pages or so are accounts of the more than 250 species of mammals themselves, with a steady supply of remarkably good photographs, mostly of western mammals, that will make anyone yearn for a trip to natural areas out west. Double-page pictures of a wolf chasing a herd of elk over a snow-covered shrub habitat, a prairie dog peering from its hole with the backdrop of bison on the plains, and a magnificent rim view of the Grand Canyon are some of the many natural scenes. The two-page photo of a sunlit red fox on cinnamon-colored terrain with a rust-colored sky is an awesome mix of wildlife and art.

The handful of eastern parks have their moments in the book. A look-down view of the giant waves of the Atlantic crashing into the 52 miles of Maine's rockbound coastline makes a person appreciate the awesome beauty of undeveloped habitat. Mammoth Cave in Kentucky, the world's longest known cave system, has no photograph with the account, but as with other accounts the text provides an overview of its history and the mammal inhabitants. Congress first considered establishing Mammoth Cave as a national park in 1912. The area, now totaling 52,830 aboveground acres, officially became one in 1941. The cave has 350 miles of known passageways, plus many yet to be explored. Not unexpectedly, aside from humans, bats are the primary visitors to the cave itself, as many as a dozen species being known from the park.

Despite the awesome beauty of all our national parks, environmental threats, including poaching, air and water pollution, pressure from oil, gas, and mining interests, snowmobiles, and even development, abound, in part due to insufficient funding. Federal budget cuts create a problem for almost all parks because not enough staff are available to enforce regulations that protect a park's natural resources. I believe Congress, President Bush, and commercial development groups ought to explain to the public why these national wildlife sanctuaries should continue to face environmental threats. The book offers supporting evidence for my view that we should be doing all we can to support our national parks.

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