Vanishing Habitats

TROPICAL RAINFOREST: A WORLD SURVEY OF OUR MOST VALUABLE AND ENDANGERED HABITAT WITH A BLUEPRINT FOR ITS SURVIVAL. By Arnold Newman, Facts on File, 256 pp., $40

ONE doesn't usually begin a book review by discussing a book's price. But the vital regions that ``Tropical Rainforests'' describes, the devastating assaults these regions face, and the practical steps that anyone can take to help slow those assaults deserve a wider readership than $40 is likely to attract.

Drawing on 25 years of travel to rain forests around the globe, Arnold Newman has put together a visual and factual primer on tropical rain forests. These critical regions of our planet cover only 6 percent of Earth's land mass, yet contain 80 percent of the planet's land-based plant life and up to 90 percent of the planet's species. Since 1940, development pressures have destroyed 40 percent of the tropical rain forests. Unchecked, that pace threatens to eliminate them early in the next century, he warns.

Scientists are concerned about this destruction for several reasons: the impact it has on global climate; the potential benefits to humanity of some of the plant and animal species; and the discouraging prospect that species are becoming extinct before researchers have a chance to discover and study them.

Newman nicely balances explanatory text with charts, graphs, and tables, plus the lush photography that one would expect to develop from lush subjects. The reader is given a Cook's tour of rain forests from the canopy to forest floor and a sober assessment of the effects of helter-skelter development and farming.

Perhaps most useful, the last chapter lays out a ``blueprint for survival,'' which deals with strategies for sustainable agriculture, reforestation, and fisheries. The chapter winds up with an action plan for individuals.

Although the suggestions - write letters, educate yourself on the issue, patronize businesses and buy products that are environmentally responsible - aren't unique to saving rain forests, they bear repeating.

Some of the most practical information for individuals comes in the appendixes. For example, one table describes tropical timbers to avoid in furniture and other items, and their North American alternatives. The book also contains an extensive bibliography for those who wish to deepen their understanding of rain forests.

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