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Chicago Biosphere Reserve Considered by Steering Committee

By Wesley Sholtes
February 15, 2003

A coalition of over 160 government agencies, nonprofit organizations, environmental groups, and other private entities is currently clamoring for the United Nations to designate a Biosphere Reserve in the Chicago area. Chicago Wilderness, the name for both the coalition and an envisioned 200,000-acre region of protected natural lands surrounding Chicago, promotes biodiversity across 10 different counties in southeastern Wisconsin, northeastern Illinois, and northwestern Indiana.

Elizabeth McCance, director of conservation programs at Chicago Wilderness and head of the steering committee that is formulating the proposal, hopes that the effort to protect the Chicago Wilderness will receive more governmental recognition with the advent of the proposal.

“We are pursuing a gamut of activities,” says McCance. We hope to protect “native species.” As to the size of the Biosphere Reserve, McCance has “no idea how large it will be.” However, according to a Daily Southtown article by John Dobberstein, the Biosphere Reserve could encompass all or part of the 10 counties that comprise the Chicago Wilderness.

McCance states, “Right now, we are researching the advantages and disadvantages of a proposal.”

Stephanie Fulk of Chicago Wilderness also stresses that the process for developing a proposal is in the early stages. “[We’re] in the research phase. A steering committee is looking into what it would take to propose and what the steps are in the application [process].”

Fulk says that Chicago Wilderness is interested in designating a United Nations Education, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) Biosphere Reserve to protect ecosystems. “There is a surprising number of high qualities habitats in the Chicago area; they are the best in Illinois.”

“We are recognizing natural resources here in an urban environment. Our main purpose is to conserve and restore… ecosystems and quality of life,” states Fulk. According to the Chicago Wilderness web site, the coalition endeavors to uphold “healthy, diverse ecosystems” that could better provide people with clean air and water as well as natural resources for food and medicine.

Fulk also states that a Biosphere Reserve designation would have “benefits to locals; it improves air quality, water quality, and relieves stress.”

McCance says that such a program would not oblige property owners to participate unless they want to. “Landowners voluntarily sign up to be a part of it,” says McCance. Furthermore, she says that no new land use regulations would be needed to protect the environment under a Biosphere Reserve.

John Rishel, staff member of the House Resources Committee, agrees that a Biosphere Reserve “is supposedly requested by people who live there,” but he argues that such rhetoric “is a bunch of hogwash.”

Henry Lamb, Executive Vice President of the Environmental Conservation Organization, shares a similar sentiment. He is skeptical of the assertion that the program would be implemented only where landowners volunteered to support the program.

Secrecy and Controversy Elsewhere

In the case of the 11-million acre Champlain-Adirondack Biosphere Reserve straddling New York and Vermont, which was approved by UNESCO in 1989, the designation was only publicly disclosed a year later, when the boundaries of the “transition zone” appeared on a map delineating the proposed State acquisition of 654,000 acres of additional land for the Adirondack Forest Preserve, according to Carol W. LaGrasse, President of the Property Rights Foundation of America, based in the Adirondacks.

“Local officials were kept in the dark and none of the property owners were consulted. Nor do they have the opportunity to opt out,” said LaGrasse, “This is the consistent experience in every other Biosphere Reserve where we have knowledge.”

In a Biosphere Reserve proposal, “Most of the work is done, and the designation is made, before people in the area know about it,” Lamb states. “People who understand the implications raise hell.”

The most recent Biosphere Reserve effort in the United States was that to set up the Ozark Highlands Biosphere Reserve in Missouri and Arkansas. There, a coalition of agencies and environmental activists similar to the Chicago Wilderness, led by The Nature Conservancy, moved their agenda forward “for two years before it was discovered,” Lamb states.

The Ozark Highlands proposal was roundly defeated. According to a 1998 report by Theresa L. Goedeke and J. Sanford Rikoon of the University of Missouri, commissioned by the Department of State, “The Ozark activists successfully cast the MAB program as a threat to property rights and local control, thereby winning the support of fellow citizens and politicians.”

According to an article by Lamb entitled “Defeating the Biosphere,” the study “reveals and documents a deliberate effort by the steering committee to manipulate a feasibility study to produce evidence of public support of the project when there was none.”

Lamb says, “To achieve the objectives of a Biosphere Reserve, existing regulations can be intensified and new regulations would be required. The government can make it miserable.”

In the case of the Ozark proposal, the government asserted that the designation carried no regulatory influence over private property owners. However, in his article, Lamb states, “The U.S. MAB can deny all it wants to, but the official documents which set forth the Biosphere Reserve land use policy are the tools used by local organizations and individuals to defeat the nomination.”

The U.S. MAB is short for the U.S. Man and Biosphere Reserve Program located within the Department of State, which reviews and approves the nominations from the United States before forwarding them to UNESCO in Paris for formal designation. LaGrasse pointed out that, in 1995, the nomination of the Catskill Mountains Biosphere Reserve in New York State was stopped just in time at the U.S. MAB, upon the joint complaint of U.S. Representative Jerry Solomon and Senator Alfonse D’Amato, as the result of a local citizen uproar.

Possible Future Regulations and Land Acquisition

Passages taken from Chicago Wilderness’s Biodiversity Recovery Plan of 1999, which outlines general conservation and restoration goals for the region that are separate from the Biosphere Reserve proposal, suggest that landowners may indeed feel pressure from more acquisitions of land and regulations.

For example, the Biodiversity Recovery Plan states that, “Over the past few years, local preservation agencies have steadily acquired land for a variety of purposes and they expect to acquire more in the years ahead.”

The plan also says that it will protect natural communities threatened by development. “The plan recommends that these areas be preserved where possible by the expansion of public preserves, by the public acquisition of large new sites, or by the actions of qualified private owners.” Although no written document yet exists for the Chicago Biosphere Reserve proposal, similar ideas will likely be included in the proposal once it gets off the ground.

Rishel also says that the proposal may undermine the sovereignty of state and local government by allowing the United Nations to have more control over the area. He explains, “[A Biosphere Reserve] is not a treaty, but is approved by executive agreement. The concept is nebulous.”

“We’ve had problems with this before; they’re making international agreements, not treaties.” Rishel worries that UNESCO’s Biosphere Reserves do not allow for Congressional oversight. Without oversight, he fears that the U.N. could have more regulatory authority than state and local government. “With this and the World Heritage Sites, we’ve had interference with sovereignty.”

The concept of the 200,000-acre allotment of “preserved natural land” in the Chicago area originated from the creation of a National Park Service unit in 1966, the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore. However, the National Lakeshore has been embroiled in controversy, according to LaGrasse. Its boundaries were enlarged four times, the last time, over local opposition, to 15,000 acres in 1992. In the years following the establishment of the National Lakeshore, 700 suburban homes in the Beverly Shores area were condemned to restore the area to nature, according to a bulletin of a local group STOP, that formed in Porter, Indiana, in 1989 to oppose further condemnations.

Following the National Lakeshore protective measure, volunteers began pursuing prairie and woodlands restoration projects. Chicago Wilderness’s Atlas of Biodiversity states, “With the organizational backing of The Nature Conservancy, thousands of volunteers throughout Illinois were recruited for the Volunteer Stewardship Network.”

If the Chicago Wilderness succeeds in pushing the proposal through, the Reserve will feature three zones of environmental protection, including a “core area,” a “buffer zone,” and a “transition area.” Some Biosphere Reserves have multiple core areas. Since UNESCO first launched its “Man and the Biosphere” program in 1970, over 400 Biosphere Reserves have been created worldwide, including 47 in the United States.

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