Biosphere Reserves: Fact Sheet

CRS Report for Congress
Biosphere Reserves: Fact Sheet
Susan R. Fletcher
Senior Analyst in International Environmental Policy
Environment and Natural Resources Policy Division
Since 1972, the United States has participated in the Man and the Biosphere
Program (MAB), coordinated by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural
Organization (UNESCO). As part of the U.S. MAB program, 47 biosphere reserves
have been established in the United States. These sites are part of a network of 324 such
areas worldwide in which scientists conduct research and communicate about their
findings. Biosphere reserves are nominated by the country in which they are located,
and no change in jurisdiction or sovereignty occurs as a result. However, controversy
has arisen over the past 3 years over the connection to the United Nations and fears by
some commentators and organizations that U.S. sovereignty may be affected. The
American Land Sovereignty Protection Act, H.R. 901, was introduced to address these
concerns by imposing extensive conditions on the program; it has been reported by the
Resources Committee and is likely to be considered by the House in October. Another
bill would authorize the program to operate very much as it currently does, while others
would restrict appropriations for agencies participating in the programs.
Background. "Biosphere Reserve" is a term denoting an area that has been
nominated by the locality and the country in which it is located for participation in the
worldwide Biosphere Reserve Program under the U.S. Man and the Biosphere Program
(MAB), and accepted for such recognition by the United Nations Educational, Scientific
and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). Areas are nominated by a country and recognized
by UNESCO on the basis of their significance for research and study of representative
biological regions of the world. The United States has 47 biosphere reserves, part of a
worldwide network of 324 biosphere reserves in 82 countries.
Biosphere Reserve recognition does not convey any control or jurisdiction over such
sites to the United Nations or to any other entity. The United States and/or state and local
communities where biosphere reserves are located continue to exercise the same
jurisdiction as that in place before designation. Areas are listed only at the request of the
country in which they are located, and can be removed from the biosphere reserve list at
any time by a request from that country.

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Following controversy over concerns raised about the connection of this program to
the United Nations, legislation has been introduced to require congressional authorization
of all nominations of biosphere reserve sites, and to assure that commercial uses of such
sites would not be restricted by their inclusion in the program. In addition, amendments
have been passed to the Interior Department and several other appropriations bills to
prohibit obligation or expenditure of funds for the MAB Biosphere Reserve program and
the World Heritage program.
The Biosphere Reserve System. The Biosphere Reserve network was established
in 1968 as one program area of the Man and the Biosphere program of UNESCO, which
operates through independent national committees in each of the 114 participating
countries. The U.S. MAB program operates under the U.S. National MAB Committee,
which coordinates six "directorates" studying various kinds of environmental and
biological regions and issues. One of these six directorates is the Biosphere Reserve
Directorate. The U.S. MAB Committee is composed of scientists from universities,
government agencies, and other members from entities such as private conservation
The purpose of the Biosphere Reserve program is to promote cooperation and
communication among a worldwide network of areas that would include all the major
ecosystem types globally, with sites identified as areas where research on ecological
concerns--especially the impacts of human activity on ecological systems--could be
performed. A major goal of the network is to allow comparative work in various
countries in similar, or dissimilar, areas to assess how the systems work and how they can
be used productively without destroying their essential ecological properties and life-
support potential.
Criteria for Biosphere Reserves. In order to facilitate research on ecosystems in
various stages of protection and development, biosphere reserves meet these criteria: (1)
they have a legally protected core area relatively free from outside or human activity--in
the United States, usually an already designated park, wilderness or wildlife refuge area;
(2) there is a "buffer zone" or zones, surrounding or contiguous to the core area, where
human activity is carried out, but generally at low/rural intensity and types of activity that
are compatible with conservation objectives; and (3) transitional areas outside the buffer
zone where human activity is more intensified, but presumably with some cooperative
effort underway in these adjacent communities to achieve sustainable development in
which conservation and economic development are jointly pursued according to the
values and guidance of the local community.
When a local community, state, or national MAB committee begins to pursue
recognition of the area as a biosphere reserve, these criteria are usually already being met.
It is not expected that steps will have to be taken to create core areas or change activity
patterns after recognition. However, local communities are encouraged to develop
cooperative mechanisms to maximize opportunities for the research and information focus
of the Biosphere Reserve program.
Designation Process for Biosphere Reserves. An area to be considered for
recognition as a Biosphere Reserve is nominated--only with the support of the local
community--and the nomination is considered by the U.S. National Committee.
Documentation on the recommended area and how it meets the criteria of the Biosphere

Reserve system is assembled locally and forwarded by the U.S. MAB program to the
International Coordinating Council (ICC) of the MAB Programme in Paris, which
considers the recommendation and makes a decision, which is conveyed to the U.S. MAB
Policy Implications of Designation/Recognition. There are no legally binding
requirements on countries or communities regarding the management of biosphere
reserves. Full sovereignty and control over the area continues as it was before
recognition. The main effect of recognition is to publicize the inclusion of an area in the
Biosphere Reserve Network, thus making it known that research on the area's ecosystem
type and impacts of adjacent human development on the area is appropriate as part of an
international network of such research. It is expected that research in such areas--
conducted mainly by private and/or government scientists--will be shared through the
Biosphere Reserve program in order to maximize benefits of information exchange.
Funding for the U.S. Biosphere Reserve program is provided by pooled resources
from several participating federal agencies; totalling some $225,000 in FY 1996, funding
goes almost entirely to U.S. programs and local organizations, with some relatively small
amounts supporting research by U.S. scientists in other countries, or assisting developing
country scientists to attend MAB meetings.
U.S. Legislation. Both the MAB Biosphere Reserve Program and the World
Heritage Program, due to their UNESCO connection, have raised the suspicion of a
number of commentators and organizations who are concerned that designation could
result in impingement of U.S. sovereignty or could result in unacceptable limitations on
uses of the land. (See also CRS Report 96-395 F, World Heritage Convention and U.S.
National Parks). Responding to these concerns, H.R. 901, the American Land
Sovereignty Protection Act, was introduced in February, and has more than 170 co-
This bill, much like its predecessor (H.R. 3752) in the 104th Congress, provides
conditions that apply to nominations of sites to the Biosphere Reserve or World Heritage
programs. In particular, it would prohibit federal officials from nominating any lands in
the United States for designation as a Biosphere Reserve under the MAB program, and
would require that all existing Biosphere Reserves would cease to be in effect unless they
are specifically authorized by law before December 21, 2000. It would also require that
Biosphere Reserves should consist solely of lands owned by the United States and subject
to a management plan that "specifically ensures that the use of intermixed or adjacent
non-Federal property is not limited or restricted as a result of that designation."
Additional reporting requirements would be imposed, for instance to account for money
expended and to describe disposition of complaints. It appears that passage of this
legislation would significantly limit, or possibly effectively terminate, U.S. participation
in the MAB Biosphere Reserve program. H.R. 901 was marked up and reported to the
House on June 25, 1997 (H.Rept. 105-245). The bill is expected to be considered by the
House during October.
An alternative bill, H.R. 1801, was introduced June 5, 1997, "To authorize the
United States Man and the Biosphere Program, and for other purposes." This legislation
would provide statutory authority for the MAB Program, providing for its operation much

as it is currently constituted, with designation by the President of a lead agency and
authorizing other federal agencies to participate. This bill has 11 co-sponsors.
In other legislation, amendments have been introduced to many of the appropriations
bills for agencies that fund the MAB program to prohibit the use of funds for the MAB
program. A recorded vote on an amendment to the House Interior Appropriations bill
followed a heated debate among House Members who support these programs and those
opposing them; the amendment passed 222-203 on July 15. However, the Senate report
on the Interior appropriations bill (S.Rept. 105-56) was supportive of both the MAB and
World Heritage programs, and struck the House language. Similar amendments, some
including the World Heritage Program and some applying only to MAB are included in
House appropriations bills for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration
(NASA), Defense Department, and the National Science Foundation (NSF), and to
authorization bills for State Department and Defense.