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International Biosphere Reserves

What do natural areas as diverse as Big Bend National Park in Texas, Everglades National Park in Florida, and Gates of the Arctic National Park in Alaska all have in common? Apart from all being units of the National Park System, they are part of a select group of internationally recognized sites that have been designated International Biosphere Reserves. Biosphere Reserves are designed to meet one of the most difficult challenges the world is facing as it move towards the 21st century: How to maintain and conserve the diversity of plants, animals and micro-organisms which make up our living "biosphere" while at the same time meet the material needs of an increasing population. In other words, how to reconcile conservation of biological resources with their sustainable use.

In 1968, the UNESCO Conference on the Conservation and Rational Use of the Biosphere took a look at this issue, and it gave rise to the launching of the Man and the Biosphere (MAB) Programme within UNESCO. The Biosphere Reserve concept was a key element for achieving MAB's objective to strike a balance between the apparently conflicting goals of conserving biodiversity, promoting economic and social development and maintaining associated cultural values.

Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve
courtesy of the National Park Service

Its Purpose

Each Biosphere Reserve is intended to fulfill three basic functions, including: 1) conservation of important biological resources; 2) development of environmentally sound economic growth; and 3) support for research, monitoring, education, and information exchange related to conservation issues. To carry out these activities, they are organized into three interrelated zones, known as the core area, the buffer zone and the transition area.

The core area is legally protected from activity which would adversely affect its natural features. This area could be used for such activities as hiking, diving, bird watching, educational field trips, scientific research and monitoring of plant and animal life. The buffer zone is an "adjacent managed use area" that might be used for lumbering, grazing, and fishing activities, settlements, recreational facilities etc., managed to benefit local residents and the local environment. The transition area is the larger region in which local residents, cultural groups, economic interests, scientists, or managing agencies work together to link conservation and economic development guided by the cultural values of the local community.

The Nomination Process

Biosphere Reserves are nominated by national governments and must meet a minimal set of criteria and adhere to a minimal set of conditions before being admitted into the World Network. The general process is as follows:

1. A federal, state, or local agency, organization, or individual completes the nomination form. Owners and managers of the protected lands and local government leaders write letters of support.

2. The completed nomination form and letters of support sent to the national agency for review and recommendation. In the United States, this agency is the U.S. Man and the Biosphere Program (U.S. MAB).

3. The national agency sends the recommended nomination to the UNESCO office in Paris, where the MAB program office there makes the final approval and awards the biosphere reserve designation.

Hawaii Volcanoes National Park
courtesy of the National Park Service

During its most recent meetings in 2000 and 2001, the MAB program examined new biosphere reserve nominations and approved 34 new biosphere reserves, including the first ever in India, Malawi, Paraguay, and Vietnam.
Biosphere Reserves Today

Individual Biosphere Reserves remain under the jurisdiction of the countries in which they are situated. Some countries have enacted legislation specifically to establish Biosphere Reserves, while in other countries they simultaneously include areas protected under other systems (such as national parks or nature reserves) and other internationally recognized sites (such as World Heritage sites). There are presently 393 biosphere reserves in 94 countries. Of these, 47 units are in the United States, of which 29 are managed by the National Park Service.

The 29 Biosphere Reserves that are units of the National Park Service include:

Big Bend National Park

Big Thicket National Preserve

Cape Lookout National Seashore

Channel Islands National Park

Congaree National Park

Cumberland Island National Seashore

Death Valley National Park

Denali National Park and Preserve

Everglades National Park (with Fort Jefferson NM)

Gates of the Arctic National Park

Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve

Glacier National Park

Golden Gate National Recreation Area

Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Haleakala National Park

Hawaii Volcanoes National Park

Isle Royale National Park

Joshua Tree National Park

Kings Canyon National Park

Mammoth Cave National Park

Noatak National Preserve

Olympic National Park

Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument

Point Reyes National Seashore

Redwood National Park

Rocky Mountain National Park

Sequoia National Park

Virgin Islands National Park

Yellowstone National Park

 

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