The world’s oldest and biggest trees, North America’s lowest point, the highest peak in the contiguous U.S. – California is a land of superlatives.

Ecosystems of California,” a definitive new guide co-edited by Stanford ecologist Hal Mooney and with numerous Stanford contributors, provides the first-ever encyclopedic overview of the Golden State’s awe-inspiring ecosystems. It is intended to serve as a valuable resource for policymakers, resource managers, students and interested readers around the state.

“It encompasses the total array of California’s natural wealth. It’s not just an ecology book or just a history book,” said Mooney, the Paul S. and Billie Achilles Professor in Environmental Biology, Emeritus, and a senior fellow, emeritus, at the Stanford Woods Institute.

Co-edited by Erika Zavaleta, Pepper-Giberson Chair in Environmental Studies at UC Santa Cruz, the book examines California’s unique ecosystems through the lenses of past, present, and future.

“It’s about where we’ve come from and how things got to be the way they are,” said Zavaleta, who studied with Mooney as an undergraduate at Stanford more than 20 years ago.

Zavaleta and Mooney, later her Ph.D. advisor, first talked about a book project in 2005.  “We felt like there wasn’t a book that looked systematically at the history, dynamics, and the conservation of California ecosystems.

“At first we thought it would be 20 chapters and we’d write it ourselves,” Zavaleta recalled. “It quickly became apparent it would be 40 chapters and no way we could do it.”

The result is 41 chapters and more than 1,000 pages, covering the biologically diverse state from ocean to mountaintops, flora and fauna, aquatic and terrestrial, natural and managed. Each chapter evaluates natural processes for a specific ecosystem, describes drivers of change, and discusses how that ecosystem may be altered in the future.

Three audiences

Zavaleta said the book is meant for three audiences: researchers; managers, policy makers and land stewards; and students. To both promote it but more importantly help make known its findings, the editors and some contributors are embarking on a series of private and public events. Mooney, Zavaleta, and others are will visit Sacramento this month to brief state officials in the governor’s office and Office of Natural Resources.

The California Academy of Sciences has organized a symposium on the book with Zavaleta, Mooney, and other authors. The symposium is already sold out. Future events are being planned for Stanford and Southern California.

Unlike many books of its kind, “Ecosystems of California” (University of California Press, January 2016) highlights opportunities for regulation and stewardship and shows how ecosystems support human well-being. For example, one chapter identifies the construction of “armoring” such as seawalls and the erosion they lead to as a key threat to California’s sandy beaches. Removing these man-made barriers and moving threatened infrastructure inland to allow coastal retreat could provide ecological and economic benefits for the state.

It charts a story that includes a destructive period – including intensive logging, mining and water waste – that helped put a quarter of California’s species at risk of extinction. The book then traces a trajectory into a more hopeful era of growing environmental awareness that led to about half of the state’s land coming under public protection, the establishment of marine reserves and the restoration of rivers. Finally, “Ecosystems of California” looks ahead to a range of scenarios that could play out for the state’s natural systems as the climate changes.

“This is all about the natural wealth of California, what we lost, and how we’re turning the tide,” Mooney said.

Other Stanford contributors to the book include Nona Chiariello of Jasper Ridge Biological Preserve; Mark Denny and Luke Miller of Stanford’s Hopkins Marine Station; Noah Diffenbaugh, an associate professor of Earth System Science and a senior fellow at the Stanford Woods Institute; Christopher Field, the Melvin and Joan Lane Professor for Interdisciplinary Environmental Studies, professor of Earth System Science and senior fellow at the Precourt Institute for Energy and the Stanford Woods Institute; Elizabeth Hadly, the Paul S. and Billie Achilles Professor in Environmental Biology and a senior fellow at the Stanford Woods Institute; Lisa Mandle and Rebecca Chaplin-Kramer of the Natural Capital Project, a joint venture of the Stanford Woods Institute and other organizations; and Cheng Li, a then-research assistant at Stanford.