The UNESCO Man and the Biosphere Program: What’s It All About?


This webpage is designed to let you choose how much information you want to get about biosphere reserves. If you want just the basics, read through the short answers provided under the “Background in Brief” section. If you want to know more, go to the “Information in Depth” section — it has all the same information plus much more detail.

(March 2008): Read the draft report from the U.S. participants at the Third World Congress of Biosphere Reserves in Madrid.

Background in Brief


Information in Depth

The World Network of Biosphere Reserves

  • MAB and the United States

  • For more information


    Background in Brief

    What’s a biosphere reserve?

    A biosphere reserve is a unique kind of protected area that differs from a national park, wilderness area, national forest, or wildlife refuge in havingthree very different, but equal, aims: conservation of genetic resources, species, and ecosystems; scientific research and monitoring; and promoting sustainable development in communities of the surrounding region. All three of these aims are equally important in a biosphere reserve. National parks and other kinds of protected natural areas usually are primarily concerned with conservation, and only secondarily with research and sustainable development.

    By design, there is no single model for running biosphere reserves, but there are two common underlying principles: the management system of a biosphere reserve needs to be open, not closed, to community concerns; and it needs to be adaptible to changes in local circumstances. Biosphere reserves are meant to be places where communities can work in concert with the area’s land-managing agencies, local governments, schools, and other institutions to design responses to external political, economic, and social pressures that affect the ecological and cultural values of the area.

    Each biosphere reserve has its own system of governance to ensure that it meets its functions and objectives. Often it is found useful to set up a committee or board that coordinates all biosphere reserve’s activities. Usually a coordinator is named as the contact person for all matters dealing with the biosphere reserve.

    What is the Man and the Biosphere (MAB) Program?

    The Man and the Biosphere Program (MAB) was launched in 1970. A UNESCO Biosphere Conference in 1968 had brought together representatives of government and non-govermental organizations to consider what should be done about threats to the biosphere that were being increasingly perceived by U.N. Member States.  After this, an International Co-ordinating Council was formed, which recommended convening panels of experts from the member states. The ICC also emphasized that establishment of reserves was important to meet scientific, educational, cultural and recreational needs. This came to be known as the “biosphere reserve” project.

    MAB’s original aim was to establish protected areas representing the main ecosystems of the planet in which genetic resources could be protected and research and monitoring could be carried out. These protected areas were to be called “biosphere reserves” in reference to the MAB program’s name. Like all scientific programs, MAB has been refined over the years but is still committed to its original aims. Today, MAB is a set of related scientific research projects with three focuses:

    Today, the ICC consists of 34 Member States elected by UNESCO’s biennial general conference. The ICC normally meets once every two years. Among other things, the Council decides upon new biosphere reserves and takes note of recommendations on periodic review reports of existing biosphere reserves. There are also MAB National Committees that oversee MAB programs in their countries and report to the MAB Council.

    Are there U.S. biosphere reserves?

    Yes, there are 47 biosphere reserves in the United States. All of them have other designations as well. Some are national parks (for example, Everglades, Olympic), experimental forests or ranges (run by the U.S. Forest Service), other kinds of protected natural areas (such as university-owned preserves), and even a privately owned nature attraction (Grandfather Mountain, Inc., in North Carolina).

    What kind of restrictions apply to U.S. biosphere reserves?

  • Over the years various interest groups and individual citizens have raised concerns about how the MAB biosphere reserve program operates within the United States. A large, almost bewildering variety of charges have been alleged about biosphere reserves. Many of these charges revolve around a basic fear and distrust of the United Nations. This category of objections includes such claims as the United Nations is poised to invade the United States, confiscate American land, impose some kind of “new world order” on citizens here, and so forth. There is no truth whatsoever to these charges.
  • On the other hand, many concerns about how biosphere reserves operate in the U.S. are factually based, reasonable, and put forth in good faith. This category of objections includes legitimate concerns about national sovereignty, the status of private property within biosphere reserves, the amount of control the United Nations has over the management of land included within biosphere reserves, and the effect that biosphere reserves might have on the economy of nearby communities.

    The fundamental point is that UNESCO, the MAB Council, the MAB National Committees, or any other part of the United Nations have no power to force changes in land/resource management or ownership upon governments, public agencies, or private parties in the United States (or any other country, for that matter). Through the MAB Council, UNESCO does set standards for biosphere reserves, and through periodic reviews it assesses whether the standards are being promoted. If they aren’t, the Council encourages the reserve manager to make the changes necessary to do so, but cannot force any changes. The United States’ participation in the biosphere reserve progam is entirely voluntary, and land within U.S. biosphere reserves remains under the control of its owners.

    Others have questioned what effect the designation of a biosphere reserve might have on property values and on the willingness of businesses to locate within them, and whether the biosphere reserve will change patterns of tourism in the area. No economic or scientific studies have been done on any of these questions. All we have to go on is anecdotal evidence, and this suggests that in all likelihood the designation of a biosphere reserve has no effect one way or the other on property values. Nor is there any evidence that businesses will be less likely to locate within the buffer or transition zones of a biosphere reserve. Finally, there is nothing to suggest that a biosphere reserve does anything to hamper or discourage tourism to the surrounding region.

    Where can I get more information on biosphere reserves in the U.S. and elsewhere?

    You can read the Information in Depth, just below — it has much more detailed material, including a number of links to other web-based resources. Or you can skip to the end of this page and consult our list of links to other biosphere reserve materials.


    Information in Depth

    What is UNESCO?

    The Man and the Biosphere Program (MAB) is one of the major scientific programs of the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), a specialized agency of the U.N. Click here for summary of the UN’s mission, which provides a context to UNESCO and MAB.

    Headquartered in Paris, France, UNESCO was founded in 1945, shortly after the U.N. came into existence. It is the U.N.’s lead agency on matters relating to education, the sciences, culture, and communications. UNESCO has the following functions with respect to its four areas of interest: to serve as a “laboratory of ideas” — encouraging new thinking and continuing reappraisal of current international concerns; to be a clearinghouse for information, especially by trying to identify the most successful solutions to problems; to help set standards for international agreements (including treaties) and, in some cases, to act as the secretariat (executive body) for these international agreements and treaties; and to provide technical expertise to the national governments that are members of the United Nations.

    The United Nations is the world’s most important intergovernmental organization. It includes 191 sovereign countries (referred to as “Member States”), representing virtually every country in the world. It was founded in 1945, just after the conclusion of World War II, “to maintain international peace and security, develop friendly relations among nations and promote social progress, better living standards and human rights.” The Member States are bound together by the principles of the U.N. Charter, an international treaty that spells out their rights and duties as members of the world community.

    What does “biosphere” mean?

    The word “biosphere” refers to the three regions of the Earth capable of being occupied by living organisms: (1) the surface of the Earth (land, oceans, lakes, rivers, and other waters); (2) close-lying subsurface areas occupied by plants and animals (including microorganisms), and (3) the low-altitude atmosphere where birds, insects, other flying animals, and plants can live. If you imagine a cross-section of the Earth in space, a side view of the planet as if it were cut in half from top to bottom, the biosphere would be a very thin slice of the total picture — no more than the “skin” of the Earth along with the area just above and below it. The word “biosphere” therefore conveys a special quality of rarity and value, and of life’s inherent fragility.

    This, then, is the basic concept behind the name “Man and the Biosphere”: the life-supporting areas of Earth are valuable and fragile, and need to be treated with care by human beings.

    What is the Man and the Biosphere (MAB) Program?

    The UNESCO Biosphere Conference in 1968 brought together representatives of government and non-govermental organizations to consider what should be done about threats to the biosphere that were being increasingly perceived by U.N. Member States. The delegates, including a strong contingent from the U.S., agreed that all governments should join in a broad, research-oriented program to reverse the trend. After this, an International Coordinating Council was formed, with the U.S. member as vice President of the Council, and, in 1971, at its first session, it recommended convening panels of experts from the member states. The ICC also emphasized that establishment of reserves was important to meet scientific, educational, cultural and recreational needs. This came to be known as the “biosphere reserve” project.

    MAB was launched in 1970, and was formally endorsed by U.N. Member States at the U.N. Conference on the Environment (the first “Earth Summit”) in 1972. The original aim of MAB was to establish protected areas representing the main ecosystems of the planet in which genetic resources could be protected and research and monitoring could be carried out. These protected areas were to be called “biosphere reserves” in reference to the MAB program’s name.

    Has the MAB program changed its objectives since it was formed?

    Like all scientific programs, MAB has been refined over the years but still is committed to its original aims. Today, MAB is a set of related scientific research projects with three focuses:

    The centerpiece of MAB, and our concern here, is the global network of biosphere reserves, but it’s worth noting here in passing that MAB has a number of other projects, such as the Great Apes Survival Project, which supports the protection of gorillas and other large primate species, and the Young Scientists Award, a scholarship aimed primarily at youth from developing countries.

    Who administers MAB? How many countries take part?

    The MAB governing body, the International Co-ordinating Council, usually referred to as the MAB Council or ICC, consists of 34 Member States elected by UNESCO’s biennial general conference. In between meetings, the authority of the ICC is delegated to its MAB Bureau, whose members are nominated from each of UNESCO’s geopolitical regions. The MAB Council normally meets once every two years. Among other things, the Council decides upon new biosphere reserves and takes note of recommendations on periodic review reports of existing biosphere reserves.

    There are also MAB National Committees that oversee MAB programs in their countries and report to the MAB Council. These National Committees usually include representatives of protected area agencies, other governmental bodies, universities, and nongovernmental organizations. In addition, some regions of the world have regional MAB networks.

    Currently (May 2006), there are MAB national committees in 147 countries.

    The World Network of Biosphere Reserves

    What’s a biosphere reserve?

    A biosphere reserve is a unique kind of protected area that differs from a national park, wilderness area, national forest, or wildlife refuge in several important ways.

    Schematic depiction of the three aims of biosphere reserves.

    How do the aims of biosphere reserves get met?

    As originally conceived, biosphere reserves were to try to fulfill these three aims by being divided into three zones.

    Schematic depiction of the three zones of biosphere reserves and the kinds of activities that take place in them.

    Do all biosphere reserves have to have three zones? No, the zone plan is a theoretical concept. What is paramount is choosing approaches that will work. UNESCO encourages countries to develop innovative, cooperative approaches to achieve the biosphere reserve’s purposes. UNESCO encourages countries to develop their own criteria, according to the special conditions in each country. Establishment of buffer zones, and strict management policies for such zones, are not possible in many countries, so cooperative conservation strategies and mechanisms have to be developed. The key idea is not to sanction those people who do not wish to take part in biosphere reserve activities, but to encourage the people who do.

    That is the case in the United States, where 42 of the 47 biosphere reserves do not have buffer zones or transition zones. Rather, they consist only of a core area. In the United States, the core zone is always a previously designated park, wilderness area, wildlife refuge, or scientific research area. In other countries, biosphere reserves are often “created from scratch” rather than being overlaid on an existing protected area.

    As it is for all protected areas, the theory and management of biosphere reserves is responsive to changes in the larger society around them. Today, all protected areas — including the most strictly protected ones, such as national parks and designated wilderness areas — are based on a principal of cooperation. Regulations are subject to public review and consultation on a recurring basis, and within the protected area management professions there is now near-universal agreement that considering the interests of the public (and especially of local people) is the best way to achieve the objectives of the protected area, whatever those may be.

    What are the benefits of biosphere reserves?

    Who manages the biosphere reserve?

    By design, there is no single model for running biosphere reserves, but there are two common underlying principles: the management system of a biosphere reserve needs to be open, not closed, to community concerns; and it needs to be adaptible to changes in local circumstances. Biosphere reserves are meant to be places where communities can work in concert with the area’s land-managing agencies, local governments, schools, and other institutions to design responses to external political, economic, and social pressures that affect the ecological and cultural values of the area.

    Each biosphere reserve has its own system of governance to ensure that it meets its functions and objectives. Often it is found useful to set up a committee or board that coordinates all biosphere reserve’s activities. Usually a coordinator is named as the contact person for all matters dealing with the biosphere reserve.

    UNESCO does not manage biosphere reserves; all management responsibility remains with people in the host country. The United Nations has no power to require any changes to national, state, or local laws or in any form of ownership.

    Under what legal authority are biosphere reserves created?

    Biosphere reserves are not the object of a binding international agreement or treaty. Instead, they are governed by a “soft law” — the Statutory Framework for Biosphere Reserves — adopted by the UNESCO General Conference. The participation of U.N. Member States in the UNESCO General Conference is the point of national oversight on the MAB Program. It is the responsibility of each country, through its MAB National Committee, to ensure that the biosphere reserves respond to the criteria and function properly.

    In most countries it is not been found necessary to enact special national legislation for biosphere reserves; instead, existing legal frameworks for nature protection and land/water management are used. That being said, today an increasing number of countries are passing national biosphere reserve legislation in order to make their legal status perfectly clear.

    How many biosphere reserves are there, and where are they?

    There are currently (as of July 2005) 482 biosphere reserves in 102 countries (complete list here; interactive map here). Seven of these are transboundary biosphere reserves, extending across the borders of two countries.

    What are the criteria for biosphere reserves?

  • To be considered as a biosphere reserve, an area must at minimum meet the legal protection requirements for a core area. Ideally, in addition the area would have an identified and viable buffer zone and transition zone, but, as noted above, in practice these are often not present.

  • The criteria listed on the biosphere reserve webpage of Grandfather Mountain, Inc., are a good informal statement of the basic requirements:

  • (Incidentally, Grandfather Mountain is a privately owned tourist attraction, and the only biosphere reserve in the world situated entirely on private property.)

  • How are sites chosen?

  • Parties interested in establishing a biosphere reserve work through their country’s national MAB committee to nominate an area using a detailed nomination form. The nomination is then forwarded to the MAB Council where it is considered at one of its regular meetings. If the nomination is approved, then the designation is confirmed and the area begins to operate as a biosphere reserve.

  • UNESCO oversees biosphere reserves only to the extent of making sure that they meet the minimum criteria outlined above. As called for in the Statutory Framework for Biosphere Reserves, every 10 years the MAB reviews each biosphere reserve in the network to make sure each is still meeting the criteria. This is done by reviewing reports submitted by the managing agency(ies) or organization(s). If the MAB Council finds that a particular biosphere reserve no longers meets the minimum criteria, it will work with the managing agency to resolve the problem. If that is not successful, then the MAB Council can cancel the biosphere reserve designation and the area will no longer be referred to as such. To date, this has never happened, though agencies in several countries have voluntarily withdrawn non-functional sites with the agreement of the MAB Council.

  • MAB and the United States

  • The U.S.’s role in MAB

  • The U.S. MAB Program is a voluntary, interagency effort which operates within the existing authorities of the participating agencies. Established in 1974, U.S. MAB is operates under a National Committee. Currently, that Committee is dormant.
  • U.S. MAB’s mission statement is as follows:
  • “The mission of the United States MAB Program is to explore, demonstrate, promote, and encourage harmonious relationships between people and their environments building on the MAB network of Biosphere Reserves and interdisciplinary research. The long-term goal of the U.S. MAB Program is to contribute to achieving a sustainable society early in the 21st Century. The MAB mission and long term goal will be implemented, in the United States and internationally, through public-private partnerships and linkages that sponsor and promote cooperative interdisciplinary research, experimentation, education and information exchange on options by which societies can achieve sustainability.”
  • Once the U.S. National Committee is reformulated, this mission may be changed.
  • U.S. biosphere reserves

  • The table below lists all 47 biosphere reserves in the United States, with links to their webpage on the UNESCO MAB website:
  • Name The core zone is administered by ... Does the biosphere reserve have a buffer zone? Does the biosphere reserve have a transition zone?
    Aleutian Islands National Wildlife Refuge US Fish & Wildlife Service
    No
    No
    Beaver Creek Experimental Watershed US Forest Service
    No
    No
    Big Bend National Park National Park Service
    No
    No
    Big Thicket National Preserve National Park Service
    No
    No
    California Coast Ranges Biosphere Reserve University of California Natural Reserve System
    No
    No
    Carolinian–South Atlantic Biosphere Reserve Non-Game and Heritage Trust (South Carolina)
    No
    No
    Cascade Head Experimental Forest US Forest Service
    No
    No
    Central Gulf Coast Plain Biosphere Reserve NOAA
    No
    No
    Central Plains Experimental Range USDA Agricultural Research Service
    No
    No
    Champlain–Adirondack Biosphere Reserve Adirondack Park Agency (NY), US Forest Service, Vermont Agency of Natural Resources
    Yes
    Yes
    Channel Islands National Park National Park Service
    No
    No
    Coram Experimental Forest US Forest Service
    No
    No
    Denali National Park & Preserve National Park Service
    No
    No
    Desert Experimental Range US Forest Service
    No
    No
    Everglades & Dry Tortugas National Parks National Park Service
    Yes
    Yes
    Fraser Experimental Forest US Forest Service
    No
    No
    Glacier National Park National Park Service
    Yes
    Yes
    Glacier Bay National Park & Preserve / Admiralty Island National Monument National Park Service / US Forest Service
    Yes
    Yes
    Golden Gate Biosphere Reserve Audubon Canyon Ranch; University of California; National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration; U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service; National Park Service; Stanford University; Marin Municipal Water District; California Department of Parks and Recreation; San Francisco Public Utilities Commission; Point Reyes Bird Observatory; Presidio Trust
    No
    No
    Guanica Commonwealth Forest Puerto Rico Department of Natural Resources
    No
    No
    H. J. Andrews Experimental Forest US Forest Service / Oregon State University
    No
    No
    Hawaiian Islands Biosphere Reserves (Haleakala & Hawaii Volcanoes National Parks) National Park Service
    No
    No
    Hubbard Brook Experimental Forest US Forest Service
    No
    No
    Isle Royale National Park National Park Service
    No
    No
    Jornada Experimental Range USDA Agricultural Research Service
    No
    No
    Konza Prairie Biological Station Kansas State University
    No
    No
    Land Between the Lakes Biosphere Reserve US Forest Service
    No
    No
    Luquillo Experimental Forest US Forest Service
    No
    No
    Mammoth Cave Area Biosphere Reserve National Park Service, Barren River Area Development District
    No
    No
    Mojave and Colorado Deserts Biosphere Reserve National Park Service, University of California
    No
    No
    New Jersey Pinelands Biosphere Reserve (Pinelands National Reserve) Pinelands National Reserve Commission
    No
    No
    Niwot Ridge Mountain Research Station University of Colorado
    No
    No
    Noatak National Preserve National Park Service
    No
    No
    Olympic National Park National Park Service
    No
    No
    Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument National Park Service
    No
    No
    Rocky Mountain National Park National Park Service
    No
    No
    San Dimas Experimental Forest US Forest Service
    No
    No
    San Joaquin Experimental Range US Forest Service
    No
    No
    Sequoia-Kings Canyon National Parks National Park Service
    No
    No
    South Atlantic Coastal Plain Biosphere Reserve (Congaree Swamp National Monument) National Park Service
    No
    No
    Southern Appalachian Biosphere Reserve Southern Appalachian Man and the Biosphere Cooperative (SAMAB)
    No
    Yes
    Stanislaus-Tuolumne Experimental Forest US Forest Service
    No
    No
    Three Sisters Wilderness US Forest Service
    No
    No
    University of Michigan Biological Station University of Michigan
    No
    No
    Virgin Islands National Park National Park Service
    No
    No
    Virginia Coast Reserve The Nature Conservancy
    No
    No
    Yellowstone National Park National Park Service
    No
    No
  • Click here for an interactive map showing the locations of U.S. biosphere reserves.

    Concerns about how international conservation systems operate in the U.S.

  • Over the years various interest groups and individual citizens have raised concerns about how the MAB biosphere reserve program operates within the United States. A large, almost bewildering variety of charges have been alleged about biosphere reserves. Many of these charges revolve around a basic fear and distrust of the United Nations (and, by extension, of international cooperation in general). This category of objections includes such claims as the United Nations is poised to invade the United States, confiscate American land, impose some kind of “new world order” on citizens here, and so forth. There are literally hundreds of variations on this anti-U.N., conspiracy-theory theme.
  • There is no point in trying to refute claims by those who are categorically convinced that the U.N. is nefarious. Rather, it simply needs to be stated plainly that there is no truth whatsoever to any kind of charge that the U.N. desires to seize or disrupt the sovereign powers of any of its Member States. Reviews of charters and treaties clearly indicate the authorities of Member States and spell out their free choice to participate in UNESCO programs, including MAB (see additional discussion below). In some cases, misinformation and/or innuendo are spread by those seeking to further political agendas, including disruption of reasoned discussion of the United States’ role in international conservation.
  • On the other hand, supporters of international conservation efforts have an obligation to be equally forthright in acknowledging that many concerns about how biosphere reserves operate in the U.S. are factually based, reasonable, and put forth in good faith. This category of objections includes legitimate concerns about national sovereignty, the status of private property within biosphere reserves, the amount of control the United Nations has over the management of land included within biosphere reserves, and the effect that biosphere reserves might have on the economy of nearby communities.

    The issue of sovereignty. A common objection to U.N.-supervised protected area designations is that they compromise the sovereignty of the United States. It is argued that allowing the U.N. any kind of oversight—even if that oversight involves no binding enforcement mechanisms—is an infringement.

    Sovereignty fundamentally refers to the supreme power of an autonomous, independent body politic. In reference to the national interests of the United States, “sovereignty” means the power of the federal government to manage the nation’s affairs freely and without coercion from other entities, whether those entities be foreign governments, the United Nations, domestic groups, multinational corporations, international nonprofit or other civic organizations, or individual persons.

    The critical point is that sovereignty means the unbounded capacity or ability of the U.S. federal government to govern national affairs. It does not mean that the United States should use that capacity to operate in total isolation from the rest of the world. No country today is self-sufficient, whether in terms of the natural resources it needs to support its economy, the allies it needs to defend its interests, or in the technical knowledge required to maintain the modern way of life. We have to cooperate with other countries in order for civilization to function. The United Nations is the most ambitious venue for comprehensive, worldwide cooperation.

    In willingly taking part in international affairs, the United States enters into all kinds of treaties and other sorts of international agreements that commit the federal government to taking, or refraining from, certain actions. The question, then, is not whether the United States should enter into international agreements, but whether the commitments and restrictions in those agreements are (1) reasonable and (2) really do further the national interest.

    In terms of U.S. participation in the MAB biosphere reserve program, the answer to both of these questions is “yes.”

    First, the biosphere reserve program is reasonable because all actions taken under the program are entirely voluntary. The MAB Council cannot impose any course of action on the managers of a biosphere reserve or people living within it; the Council can only encourage adherence to the principles and aims of the biosphere reserve designation. The Introduction to the Statutory Framework for Biosphere Reserves states this as clearly as can be:

    “Biosphere Reserves, each of which remains under the sole sovereignty of the State [in international contexts, “State” means “national government”] where it is situated and thereby submitted to State legislation only, form a world network in which participation by States is voluntary.”

    This is repeated in Article 2, paragraph 1 of the Framework:

    “Individual Biosphere Reserves remain under the sovereign jurisdiction of the States where they are situated. Under the present Statutory Framework, States take the measures which they deem necessary according to their national legislation."

    If the MAB Council of UNESCO doesn’t like how a U.S. biosphere reserve is being managed, its only recourse is to try to persuade the managers to voluntarily bring management into accordance with biosphere reserve principles. Failing that, the only thing MAB can do is to withdraw the designation.

    Second, the biosphere reserve program does further the national interest by giving U.S. land managers a tool to combine scientific research and nature protection in the core zone with promotion (not imposition) of sustainable, environmentally sensitive development in surrounding communities. Biosphere reserves are unique among U.S. protected area designations in taking this cross-cutting approach. Other kinds of federal protected areas — national parks and monuments, national forests, national wildlife refuges, wilderness areas, and the like — are focused either on nature/wilderness protection or on multiple use of resources. None of these designations alone have the research and experimentation focus of biosphere reserves, and none of them consider sustainable development as one of their principal aims. It is in the U.S. national interest to supplement more traditional kinds of protected areas with biosphere reserves as a way to seek innovative, voluntary solutions to new environmental and social challenges.

    The issue of property rights. UNESCO has long recognized that property rights are an important and legitimate concern wherever biosphere reserves have been proposed or created. Since the core areas of U.S. biosphere reserves are already under the jurisdiction of a land-managing agency, the issue of property rights comes to the fore when we are talking about the buffer and transition (cooperation) zones of biosphere reserves. As noted above, in the United States, 42 of the 47 biosphere reserves do not even have buffer and/or transition zones, so in these the issue of property rights is moot.

    However, even in the 5 U.S. biosphere reserves that have identified buffer and transition zones, there is no threat to property rights. If private landowners in a biosphere reserves want to do something on their property that complies with federal, state, and local laws, there is nothing the manager of the biosphere reserve core area can do to stop them. The entire point of buffer and transition zones is to be voluntary demonstration areas where people can, if they wish, adopt environmentally sensitive land use practices and ways of living that preserve the local character of the community. The biosphere reserve designation exists to encourage this sustainable development activity through sharing of technical advice, and by publicizing the activity to visitors to the biosphere reserve. Again the idea is not to sanction those people who do not wish to take part, but to encourage the people who do.

    The issue of U.N. control. Again, the United Nations does not manage biosphere reserves. That is the sole responsibility of the agency(ies) or organization(s) directly in charge. Neither UNESCO, the MAB Council, nor the MAB National Committees have any power to force changes in land/resource management or ownership upon governments, public agencies, or private parties in the United States (or any other country, for that matter).

    Does UNESCO have any influence over biosphere reserves? By definition, yes, it certainly does. Through the MAB Council, UNESCO sets standards for biosphere reserves — which countries have volunteered to designate — that it rightfully expects reserve managers to promote, and through its periodic reviews it assesses whether the standards are being promoted. If they aren’t, the Council encourages the reserve manager to make the changes necessary to do so. This is just as it should be. The whole point of international cooperation in conservation is put the world’s collective wisdom to work on behalf of solving difficult problems. It makes no sense to have international programs that are nothing more than a symbolic plaque on the wall of a visitor center.

    It is often stated that the U.S. Congress, state governments, and local governments have no oversight on biosphere reserves. In terms of direct oversight, as things currently stand this is true. The reason why is that, unlike some other countries, the United States presently has no national law governing our participation in the MAB Program. Such a law is not required to participate in MAB. The authority for the U.S. MAB Program comes from the existing laws that govern the federal agencies that take part (outlined above under “The U.S.’s role in MAB”). In the absence of a national law on biosphere reserves, U.S. governmental units do have some oversight, but it is indirect oversight obtained through our national-level representation to UNESCO and the MAB Council.

    Is there a national law on the MAB Program? No, but critics of biosphere reserves in the U.S. argue that there should be one, and that it should give Congress a direct oversight role. There is nothing unreasonable about this. Such a law would give clear guidance to the U.S. MAB Committee and could help allay legitimate concerns about the purpose and management of biosphere reserves. However, any national legislation should be written so that it enables the proper functioning of biosphere reserves, not hamstring them. For example, in years past there have been proposals for national legislation that would require Congress to retroactively authorize each of the existing biosphere reserves through 47 separate acts of Congress — a cumbersome and unnecessary requirement.

    The issue of economic impacts. Other legitimate concerns with biosphere reserves are what effect the designation might have on property values and on the willingness of businesses to locate within the buffer and transition zones, and whether the biosphere reserve will change patterns of tourism in the area.

    As to property values, no economic or scientific studies have been done on whether biosphere designation affects them one way or the other. In testimony given to Congress in 1996 on “A Bill to Preserve the Sovereignty of the United States Over Public Lands” (H. R. 3752), and on a similar bill introduced in 1997 (H.R. 901), not one of the witnesses was able to cite any cases of decreased property value in the vicinity of a biosphere reserve. (See “Sovereignty Over Public Lands,” Hearings before the Committee on Resources, House of Representatives, 104th Congress, Second Session on H.R. 3752, September 12, 1996; and Hearings before the Committee on Resources, House of Representatives, 105th Congress, First Session, June 10, 1997). Anecdotal evidence suggests that property values in the immediate vicinity of conventional protected areas, such as national parks, often increase because of the amenity value people ascribe to living near assets such as parks. If one looks at the areas around national parks that are also biosphere reserves — places such as Everglades, Glacier, Great Smoky Mountains, Grand Canyon, and so on — there does not appear to have been any reduction in the desirability or value of property after parks became biosphere reserves. Because the “biosphere reserve” designation is not nearly as well known as that of “national park,” in all likelihood the designation of a biosphere reserve no effect one way or the other on property values.

    Nor is there any evidence to suggest that businesses will be less likely to locate within the buffer or transition zones of a biosphere reserve. While it is conceivable that certain business owners may not want to locate within a biosphere reserve because of their negative perceptions of the designation, it is equally conceivable that owners of other businesses might be attracted to locate in the biosphere reserve because they want to be part of a community that encourages environmentally sensitive, sustainable development. More likely than either, though, is that the biosphere reserve designation will have no impact on business location decision-making.

    Tourism in U.S. biosphere reserves is almost exclusively associated with visitation to their core zones — which are already-existing protected areas. For some U.S. biosphere reserves, tourism is negligible because the core zone is a scientific research area (e.g., an experimental forest). Biosphere reserves are essentially a scientific and management-oriented designation with little marketing appeal to tourism operators. No evidence has been found to show that creation of a biosphere reserve has changed tourism patterns in the surrounding region. All in all, a biosphere reserve designation probably has a negligible effect, positively or negatively, on tourism.

    However, one function of a fully functioning biosphere reserve—the conservation of the unique environment and culture of the surrounding region—has the potential to make an indirect, but considerable, positive contribution to the regional economy. Ecotourism and heritage tourism are two of the fastest-growing segments of the domestic and global tourism industry. To the extent that biosphere reserves can help preserve and sustainably develop the distinctive features of the region, they are a powerful tool to help build a viable and stable economy for local communities.

    Current efforts to improve the U.S. biosphere reserve program

    Efforts to revive and improve the U.S. biosphere reserve program are being led by the United States Biosphere Reserves Association, a non-profit organization incorporated in 2003 to provide leadership and support for the U.S. biosphere reserves program. The aims of the Associations are to:

    The Association is currently engaged in constructive meetings with property rights advocates to define points of conflict, and points of agreement, with the intention of presenting these to Congress, so that Congress can define in law the role, if any, of biosphere reserves in the United States.

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