Natural Sites Protected as Bioregions

FIRE fences cut across the sand here on Nipomo Dunes, one of the last undeveloped, coastal dune systems in California. But migrating pelicans in formation overhead, plants, pollen, animals, and water trickling through creeks into lakes - all nature ignores them.Recognizing the folly of maintaining isolated protectorates that disregard the interdependence of life forms, conservationists here are lending currency to a buzzword gaining momentum worldwide: ecosystem management. As described in the 1991 report of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, the idea is to "manage natural sites not as isolated parcels but as part of larger, so-called 'bioregions' or 'bioreserves. The report laments the cost and cumbersomeness of traditional, species-by-species approaches - the burgeoning lists of high-profile fights to save endangered wildlife such as the spotted owl. Hand-in-glove with another buzzword, biodiversity, the concept embraces compromise with the economic, recreational, and residential needs of the creatures once kept mostly at length: humans. "After creation of the national park concept, ecosystem management is the second great leap of conservation in human history," says Dennis Glick, director of the Greater Yellowstone Tomorrow Project. Though some models date back to the last century, more modern manifestations started percolating around 1971 with a global, United Nations initiative known as "Man and the Biosphere." The early 1990s is seeing the fruitage of those early stirrings. Mr. Glick has chronicled the rise of such projects in the past two years and says about 15 are gaining momentum. Among them: * The Nature Conservancy's (TNC) "Last Great Places" program - announced in the spring - has identified 12 global sites to develop as models for how economic activity and environmental protection can be compatible. Besides the Nipomo Dunes project here, work is underway in the Florida Keys, the Virginia Coast Reserve, Texas Hill Country, and on Block Island, R.I., among other places. "We realized that no matter how fast we ran [to acquire land], it wasn't fast enough," says TNC's Will Murray. "We had to expand our vision beyond mere acquisition." * In California, representatives of 10 key state and federal agencies are drawing up frameworks that allow officials to transcend jurisdictional lines in collaborating on regional environmental issues, from water quality to endangered species. A charter is expected to be signed this month to identify and set aside critical habitat areas. The 10 resource chiefs from national forests, parks, the Bureau of Land Management, universities, and others will develop statewide goals on conserving biodiversity. "This has never been pursued formally on a statewide level," says Andy McCloud of the state resources board. * Glacier National Park and its surrounding forests in northwest Montana - one of 46 United Nations Biosphere Reserves in the US - has created a "Crown of the Continent" project to coordinate habitat and botanical management with the areas beyond its borders. "These are all combinations of federal, state, local, and private agencies coming to the independent conclusion that what they are doing has impact beyond the confines of their own entity," says Glick. Though most of these efforts began or are being sustained on a more formalized, intergovernmental basis, there is grass-roots fervor as well. A coalition of concerned, local citizens and national membership known as The Greater Yellowstone Coalition this month published an analysis of the 18-million- acre Greater Yellowstone ecosystem. The document profiles both natural and human elements that form Greater Yellowstone and inventories existing and planned development activities, such as logging, oil, and gas development. "This is the first phase of our blueprint for the long-term protection of the ecosystem," says the coalition's Mary Carr. The coalition has been urging management of 28 different jurisdictions - stretching across two state parks and seven national forests - on ecological rather than political grounds. "Agencies here don't always talk to one another," Ms. Carr adds. The result, she says, is the kind of fragmented leadership that results in park boundaries that are drawn in ruler-straight disregard of natural habitats and different policy goals that may allow clear-cutting adjacent to a park border. Organizers of the new "bioregions" say the shift of thinking requires new modes of management capabilities - with more emphasis on networking, community and interagency relations, and law. "There is a new bureaucracy involved, which requires much adjustment and some frustration for those who want to be in the field," says John Sawhill, president of The Nature Conservancy. Here at the Nipomo Dunes, partnerships have been signed with 10 entities whose properties surround a 200-acre preserve run by the Conservancy: two counties, state and federal agencies, as well as public and private companies. The Conservancy gets its protective tentacles far beyond its core reserve in managing grazing and minimizing threats from local oil-drilling. Local agencies and businesses get the benefits of TNC expertise from vegetation studies to water quality. For Vandenberg Air Force Base, whose property encompasses nearly half of the 200,000-acre dune system, TNC monitors endangered species, which helps the base meet national Environmental Protection Agency mandates when expanding new facilities. "They are teaching us what we have out there, how to take care of it, and have helped us recover from years of off-road vehicles abuse," says Vandenberg's chief of natural resources Allan Naydol. For California's Off-Highway Motor Vehicle Recreation Department (OHMVR), TNC relieved costly management of land deemed unsuitable for recreational use. "You have two groups that would seem to have divergent views working together to solve mutual problems," says OHMVR's Don Patton. "That's a major news story here." According to Glick, the bioreserve idea is gaining strength in Africa, Latin America, and Asia through local efforts as well as organizations like World Conservation Strategy. "Park managers in Nepal, Colombia, Costa Rica, [and] France are now looking at the entire regions beyond their borders and dealing with adjacent peoples and populations," he says. The UN Biosphere Reserve Program includes 260 sites in 70 countries. TNC has identified Darien National Park in Panama, a condor reserve in Ecuador, a forest in Paraguay, and a waterfowl reserve in Mexico. "Part of what's needed here [in Mexico] is just the staff to work closely with local communities to control fishing, collecting of foodstuffs, and the encroachment of ecotourism," says TNC's Susan Anderson.

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