Natural Sites Protected as Bioregions

Article excerpt

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. …