Published April 8, 2015, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle’s Opinion page, “A must-read for all.”
Mountains and Plains, The Ecology of Wyoming Landscapes, second edition, by Dennis H. Knight, George P. Jones, William A. Reiners, William H. Romme, c. 2014, Yale University. Published by Yale University Press with assistance from the University of Wyoming Biodiversity Institute. Softcover, 404 pages, $45.
By Barb Gorges
Blame the pine beetles for decimating pages of the first edition of Dennis Knight’s book, “Mountains and Plains, The Ecology of Wyoming Landscapes.”
Blame the wolves, sage-grouse and climate change and all of the other changes and new information since the book was published in 1994.
They caused Mr. Knight, University of Wyoming professor emeritus of the botany department, to give up four years of his retirement to write the second edition, published at the end of 2014.
He had help this time from three colleagues, George Jones, associate director of the Wyoming Natural Diversity Database at UW (where the book’s royalties are going); William Reiners, professor emeritus, UW; and William Romme, professor emeritus, Colorado State University, an expert on Yellowstone’s ecology.
Despite its academic authors, “Mountains and Plains” is not intended as a textbook, though this book should be required reading for everyone graduating from UW, just as is the course in the U.S. and Wyoming constitutions.
“The book was written for non-scientists who are interested in Wyoming’s environment, natural resources, and some of the controversial land management issues that decision makers are facing at the present time,” Mr. Knight said.
“My co-authors and I tried to provide an easy-to-read synthesis of peer-reviewed ecological research for people who don’t have the time or inclination to read the journals themselves.
“We hope the book is useful for those who enjoy spending time outdoors as well as teachers, students, and private, state, and federal land managers.”
How readable is this book? A background in the natural sciences is helpful.
But that can be overcome with familiarity with any of Wyoming’s landscapes, forest, grassland, sagebrush, sand dunes, alpine, meadows, wetlands, or the landscapes like Yellowstone, the Black Hills or the Laramie Basin described in special chapters.
Any curiosity about Wyoming’s landscapes will make this book a real page-turner, even if you don’t know what occasional words like “herbivory” mean. Check the Internet.
My recommendation is to flip through, enjoying the new, full-color photography until you find a compelling subheading, maybe “Aspen Forest,” on page 196.
Find out where aspen trees grow and why. Find out why they spread by sprouting from roots rather than growing from seed. Did you know aspen bark has chlorophyll and can photosynthesize?
But the ecologist, and that is what Mr. Knight is—as well as a botanist—asks what happens to aspens after a fire. What causes different results in different locations?
What triggered SAD, sudden aspen decline, beginning in 2000? What are the implications for us and other animals and other plants? What techniques have land managers tried to maintain current aspen abundance?
If some of the book’s statements seem hard to believe, look for the superscript number indicating the footnote at the back of the book that cites a study.
But studies in journals aren’t always easily available, so you can ask your question at the book’s website, www.mountainsandplains.net.
Rather than wait another 20 years for the third edition, the website started updating the book’s content in December. New studies are producing new information, but also, when the climate changes, and the way people interact with the landscape changes, ecologists must keep up.
I would add our state legislators to Mr. Knight’s list of recommended readers. This is especially so for the ones who will be on the committee studying how the state can wrest control of federally owned lands in the state—despite being an unpopular idea with 70 percent of Wyoming citizens–and the other federal land owners, the U.S. citizens living in the other 49 states who might also enjoy this book.
Mr. Knight’s epilogue sums up the whole idea of the book: that society needs to heed what ecologists know:
“Humans have been a presence in this part of the biosphere for a short time—most of the plants and animals existed a million years or more before Homo sapiens arrived—and we are still learning how to make a living from rugged western landscapes.
“As Aldo Leopold wrote in 1938, “the oldest task in human history (is) to live on a piece of land without spoiling it.” Learning to live gently and sustainably, to be good stewards, requires an understanding of both human nature and the nature of ecosystems.”
Barb Gorges writes the monthly bird and garden columns for the WTE. “Mountains and Plains” is available at the Wyoming State Museum store, the UW bookstore and from major online booksellers.