Sometime in the next year Chicago’s biggest environmental coalition, Chicago Wilderness, may ask that the southern rim of Lake Michigan, including Chicago, be named a United Nations biosphere reserve. No, the city wouldn’t be turned into a national park. But having the biosphere-reserve label would make it easier for local agencies and organizations to publicize the region’s many little-known natural areas. More important, it would encourage people to use all the area’s resources in more nature-friendly ways–mowing less, paving less, and preserving more land.

No biosphere reserve–there are already 408 in 94 countries around the world–has ever included a major city. But that’s not why libertarian and conservative opponents have already registered their disapproval of the mere possibility of such a designation. As soon as the Daily Southtown’s John Dobberstein broke the story on February 2, the Property Rights Foundation of America, based in upstate New York, produced a two-page “background brief” critiquing the idea. The brief alleges that Chicago Wilderness is “clamoring” for a biosphere reserve (not true) and that such a designation would let the UN interfere in decisions on how land is used locally (unsubstantiated). Versions of the brief have been posted on other libertarian and conservative Web sites. In September a commentary in the conservative online Illinois Leader repeated its errors and added some more, including the false statement that a UN biosphere reserve “is an area of biodiversity protected by the UN.” Labeled, yes; protected, no.

The notion that the UN might overrule local planning and zoning laws is so weird it would be easy to underestimate the clout of biosphere opponents. In the mid-90s these groups were able to stymie a less ambitious proposal for a biosphere reserve in the Ozarks. And in the late 90s they got various federal bills introduced, such as the American Land Sovereignty Protection Act, that would have required Congress to approve each new UN biosphere reserve in the U.S.

Chicago Wilderness isn’t without clout itself, including as it does 170 public and private groups ranging from universities and museums to environmental organizations, local park districts, and herpetological societies. Its conservation programs director, Elizabeth McCance, thinks the objections are misconceived. “We don’t see many changes occurring with this designation at all,” she says. “We hope it would spur more recognition for what we’re already doing.”

A biosphere reserve isn’t primarily about action, adds Suzanne Malec, deputy commissioner of the Chicago Department of Environment and a member of the Chicago Wilderness steering committee. It’s about “acknowledgment and awareness….It can only help us in our quest to engage people and think differently about urban centers and their relationship to overall ecological health. It’s an opportunity to just connect people to a bigger picture.”

So which is it? Is a UN biosphere reserve an innocuous honorific for the existing Chicago-area landscape, a kind of blessing that does nothing more than highlight all that’s good? Or is it an internationalist plot so sinister that a single news story demands an instant reaction from across the country?

Neither, actually. The parties to this debate both stand on principle–the central issue for each is property rights. The opponents of a reserve value the nearly absolute rights of private property owners more than they value nature or most public goods, while most environmentalists are willing to sacrifice some property rights to protect nature. But neither side would put it so baldly, and as a result the conversation can get eerily disconnected from reality.

In its brief against a Chicago biosphere reserve the Property Rights Foundation highlighted the threat of the United Nations, yet the group has no special animus against the UN–it abhors local zoning just as much as global zoning. Its Web site bears the motto “Stopping Government Land Acquisition–Defending the Local Culture and Economy” and offers information for those intent on “defeating zoning and building codes.”

In other words, biosphere opponents object to the things environmentalists do, not to the auspices under which they do them. The battle between private rights and public interest is one the property absolutists have lost and continue to lose in the courts as well as in the court of public opinion–so they change the subject. The environmentalists have no more interest in reopening the issue than the Super Bowl champion has in replaying the game, so they change the subject too.

As McCance suggests, a UN biosphere reserve would in many ways be Chicago Wilderness writ large. The coalition–also known as the Chicago Region Biodiversity Council–has no headquarters and few staff, much like the current biosphere reserves. It exists almost entirely through its member groups, who, according to its Web site, work together “to protect, restore, study and manage the precious natural ecosystems of the Chicago region for the benefit of the public.” Its existence alone–like that of a UN biosphere reserve–makes this work better known. It also makes it easier for bureaucrats employed by different agencies to persuade their bosses to let them work together.

Chicago Wilderness is so nonthreatening you might forget that the only way to truly protect biodiversity in the Chicago region is to change the way we use the land. If we keep on replacing woods and wetlands with parking lots and manicured lawns we’ll obliterate rare plants and animals and throw even more ecosystems into disarray. That’s why the group’s official Biodiversity Recovery Plan doesn’t stop with education and volunteerism. It encourages the public purchase of private land in order to protect endangered species and ecosystems. It also encourages local governments to “adopt zoning ordinances that require developers to protect and restore natural resources, to provide buffers for wetlands and streams, to minimize impervious surfaces, and to cluster home sites.”

So when McCance says that a biosphere reserve wouldn’t change what Chicago Wilderness is doing, she’s right. But the coalition is in the business of change–it can’t fulfill its mission without upsetting the status quo along the south edge of Lake Michigan.

Biosphere opponents don’t like public regulation or public ownership of property, but normally they have little traction. There’s no mass movement to do away with zoning laws or land-use planning. As for public ownership of land, Chicago-area residents, like many people around the country, have repeatedly voted to tax themselves in order to buy privately owned land and protect it from development. (On election day 2002, voters in 79 communities in 22 states agreed to spend $2.6 billion to protect farmland and open space, according to the Michigan Land Use Institute. One such measure produced $5 million for the west-suburban Kendall County forest preserve district.) The basic idea behind such measures has been common sense at least since Republican conservationist Theodore Roosevelt was president a century ago: private owners can and often do protect environmentally valuable land for a time, but over the long haul only the government has the determination and resources to do so.

Biosphere opponents would challenge that belief if they could. Instead they’ve mounted a flank attack–by trying to conjure up fears of a UN takeover. The fears are baseless. In the 27 years the biosphere reserve program has been in existence, no judge anywhere in the country has even come close to holding that the rules for a UN biosphere reserve take precedence over American law. Nevertheless, the opponents have pulled enough fragments of woolly UN prose out of context to arouse suspicion, putting biosphere supporters in the hopeless position of trying to prove a negative–that the UN is not about to overrule American law.

In 1998 Roger Soles, executive director of the U.S. biosphere program, posted a “Dear concerned citizen” letter on the program’s Web site in which he addressed seven allegations made by opponents. When he got to number four–the claim that “UN troops are moving into a region to depopulate it in order to establish a Biosphere Reserve”–he sighed, “It is impossible to keep up with all these erroneous claims.” Just as atheists logically can’t prove that there’s no god lurking just beyond the grave, Soles can’t guarantee that there are no black helicopters lurking just beyond the horizon. As a consequence, biosphere supporters have retreated into claims that their cherished project is, really, no big deal.

None of the existing 408 UN biosphere reserves resembles the Chicago region–and none is nearby. Dale Engquist, superintendent of the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore and a Chicago Wilderness steering committee member, observes that the nearest ones are at least a day’s drive from Chicago: to the north are Isle Royale in Lake Superior and the University of Michigan’s biological station at the north end of lower Michigan; to the west, Konza Prairie in eastern Kansas; to the south, Land Between the Lakes and the Mammoth Cave Area in Kentucky; and to the east, the New Jersey Pinelands.

The first biosphere reserves were designated in 1976 as part of an effort to save bits of representative ecosystems before strip malls and subsistence farms covered them up, so that scientists would have a relatively pristine baseline to measure more heavily used areas against. Elsewhere the reserves include places such as the humid tropical forests of the Guadeloupe Archipelago, the high-altitude grasslands of Peru’s Huascaran National Park, and the northern “lake forest” region around Lake Champlain in New York and Vermont.

The UN didn’t preserve these areas. It didn’t buy any land. It didn’t regulate any land. It did encourage others to do both when it offered its honorific designation to qualified places that national, state, or local governments had already protected.

In theory the map of any given biosphere reserve should look like a target with three concentric circles–a bull’s-eye core surrounded by a buffer surrounded by a transition area. In practice the three areas often aren’t circles, the buffer and transition areas don’t always surround the core, and sometimes there are several cores.

The core is dedicated to long-term protection, according to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization’s “Statutory Framework of the World Network of Biosphere Reserves.” Core areas are “not subject to human activity, except research and monitoring,” but in practice the existing reserves are more permissive. In the Mammoth Cave Area Biosphere Reserve in Kentucky, the core area is Mammoth Cave National Park, which encourages tourism and even includes within its boundaries a privately owned hotel. The Golden Gate Biosphere Reserve is unusually complex, with several core areas.

The second circle, the buffer zone, shields the core by allowing, according to UNESCO, “only activities compatible with the conservation objectives” of the core. Again, practice is comparatively lenient. The buffer zone in the Golden Gate Biosphere Reserve has few human inhabitants, but it allows fishing (recreational and commercial) and shipping in the marine areas, and grazing and public recreation on the land.

The outermost circle, the transition zone, is supposed to be an area “where sustainable resource management practices are promoted and developed.” That ubiquitous buzzword, “sustainable,” refers to any practice that won’t limit the options of future generations, but since we don’t know just what future generations might need, the word tends to be applied to any practice of which the speaker or writer approves. At Mammoth Cave there’s no buffer zone at all, and the transition zone is simply the area from which groundwater flows into the cave system. Here “sustainable resource management” means that the individual septic tanks of local residents are being replaced with a region-wide sewer system.

At some other reserves, the boundaries of the transition area have never been defined. That’s actually appropriate, because according to the latest thinking, there really aren’t any places where sustainable practices shouldn’t be in operation.

Thirty years ago the UN was aiming at the core, the center of the target. But ever since a March 1995 UNESCO conference in Seville, Spain, the agency has seen biosphere reserves differently: “Rather than forming islands in a world increasingly affected by severe human impacts, they can become theatres for reconciling people and nature.” This “Seville strategy” pays less attention to research in the core areas and more attention to education and action in the buffer and transition zones.

The Seville strategy is a response to the discovery that even seemingly protected places can lose their natural qualities–keeping the bulldozers at bay doesn’t accomplish as much as we might have thought 30 years ago. For instance, Pinhook Bog, an isolated 580-acre piece of the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore, is protected against development and managed so that visitors don’t overwhelm it (tours require advance reservation). Yet no legal protection can shield its unique animals and plants from pollutants blowing and flowing off the nearby Indiana toll road. No legal protection can enable the natural systems there to operate as they did before the bog was surrounded by roads, farms, and ranch houses. As a consequence, it will be less resilient when the climate changes or exotic species invade. As Chicago Wilderness’s McCance puts it, “The old paradigm of putting a fence around nature is breaking down.”

The new paradigm is the Seville strategy. It’s not about visiting Pinhook Bog on Sunday and laying waste to the rest of the earth the other six days. It’s about learning to live with nature 24-7–figuring out, in UNESCO’s words, how we can “conserve the diversity of plants, animals, and micro-organisms” and still “meet the material needs and aspirations of an increasing number of people.”

Whether it comes from the UN or your next-door neighbor, this idea of serving both people and nature is classic middle-of-the-road environmentalism. It’s not a strategy cheered by radical environmentalists, who advocate a drastic reduction in human impact through negative population growth, rural depopulation, or a general lowering of living standards. Nor is it applauded by radical libertarians and conservatives, who oppose government conservation of land on principle and in any event want to meet people’s material needs and aspirations first, letting other life-forms eke out an existence in whatever space is left.

In practice, this middle-of-the-road environmentalism is about education. It means encouraging people to learn more about nature. It means publishing handbooks–like the “Conservation Design Resource Manual” released by Chicago Wilderness and the Northeastern Illinois Planning Commission–explaining how natural landscaping saves time and money. It means encouraging volunteers to help monitor frogs, birds, butterflies, and plants in order to map a region’s most biologically significant wetlands.

This sort of education is precisely what worries Property Rights Foundation president Carol LaGrasse, who lives in Stony Creek, New York. A retired civil engineer, near vegetarian, and conscientious recycler, she considers herself an environmentalist but has also come to believe that nature preservation must be accomplished with almost no government regulation or ownership of property. In May 1999 she testified before the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Forests and Public Lands Management on behalf of the American Land Sovereignty Protection Act.

LaGrasse described UN biosphere reserves as a “pre-zoning program” that creates “an atmosphere for the future.” A biosphere reserve, she said, provides “an overlay of almost a spiritual quality, a sense of the significant, which generates a movement toward preservation and a sense that modern home-life, normal farming, forestry, mining, industry and commerce are somehow incongruous. Our freedoms and our economy…are being damaged by this cultivation of the irrational impulse toward nature.”

Her testimony suggests that LaGrasse understands biosphere reserves better than many of the troops she’s leading. Her disagreement with groups such as Chicago Wilderness has little to do with the United Nations. She simply finds it irrational to value nature more highly than “normal” ways of farming and building. But her troops may be more politically shrewd–they understand that “United Nations” rouses the rabble in a way that “pre-zoning” doesn’t.

Both LaGrasse and her troops are right to think that all this consensus building and mind changing and bigger-picture seeing isn’t an end in itself. Indeed, nobody would favor a biosphere reserve if they didn’t believe it would help persuade people to use their own property differently and persuade them that it’s a good idea to use tax dollars to regulate and buy regionally important parcels.

Even under the Seville strategy, not every backyard can dream of growing up to become part of a biosphere reserve. The dense 35-page nomination form is designed to weed out dubious candidates. Nomination forms go to the Man and the Biosphere office in the State Department (named by people who were clearly behind the curve 30 years ago). It forwards them to UNESCO’s Man and the Biosphere Program, which decides if the area qualifies.

UNESCO has physical requirements. A biosphere reserve should conserve a significant amount of biodiversity that’s representative of a region, and it should be big enough to allow for sustainable development “on a regional scale.” There are also organizational requirements. A biosphere reserve is supposed to have well-defined core, buffer, and transition areas (though, as noted above, some don’t). It must have public authorities, local communities, and private interests involved in its operation. It should include research, monitoring, education, and training. And it should have a management plan for the area and some mechanism to carry it out.

In other words, all the things that biosphere opponents abhor must already be in place before the UN will designate an area a biosphere reserve. Typical is the story of the New Jersey Pinelands, a wetland-woodland environment that’s the largest unbuilt area along the east coast between New Hampshire and southern Virginia. In 1979 New Jersey passed the Pinelands Preservation Act, a strict land-use law covering seven counties and 53 municipalities in the Pinelands. According to a case study (published at, the resulting ecosystem-based management plan was key to getting the UN to designate the Pinelands a biosphere reserve in 1983. By 1995 all the counties and 51 of the 53 municipalities had revised their regulations to conform to the regional plan, and 96 percent of all development approved in the region had been located in areas the plan marked for future growth. Property owners in areas that hadn’t been marked for growth lost the right to develop their land–the complaint of biosphere opponents. It’s possible that having the biosphere label encouraged towns and counties to go along with the regional plan, but the New Jersey legislature had already made the decision that the public interest took precedence over some development rights long before the UN showed up.

The change in philosophy from protecting a few special places to encouraging sustainable development everywhere has meant more talk in UN documents about the importance of local participation in the biosphere reserve program. In practice, the nomination and organization of biosphere reserves has been more a bureaucratic procedure than a grassroots movement–another complaint of opponents, and one that feeds their suspicions. The enormous Golden Gate Biosphere Reserve grew out of a 1985 proposal by officials at the Golden Gate National Recreation Area that their small parcel become a biosphere reserve. The unsuccessful proposal for an Ozarks Biosphere Reserve in the 1990s also came from government agency staff members, not the general public. According to a University of Missouri report issued in 1998, the staff members were more interested in interagency cooperation than in public participation–or even in a biosphere reserve. Ironically, the area’s nomination was forestalled by grassroots opposition.

What if an existing biosphere reserve deteriorates until it fails to meet the United Nations standards? UNESCO reviews existing biosphere reserves every ten years, asking questions as searching as those on the original nomination form. But there are no sanctions beyond the loss of the biosphere title. If a problem is found, UNESCO’s international coordinating committee asks the country involved to shape up. If the country doesn’t, then “within a reasonable period, the area will no longer be referred to as a biosphere reserve which is part of the Network.” Not a blue helmet in sight.

Although it’s impossible to predict, the Chicago region might well qualify as a UN biosphere reserve if nominated. The region already has an organizational head start in the Chicago Wilderness coalition–Engquist says it took a year or more for the Golden Gate Biosphere Reserve to develop a similar steering committee to coordinate biosphere reserve activities. Chicago would need that head start, because its biosphere reserve would probably be an order of magnitude more complex than any now in existence. Golden Gate has nine organizations managing 13 units. Chicago could easily include dozens of organizations managing dozens of units–a daunting planning challenge that skeptics might well consider insurmountable. (“If the city can’t design new O’Hare runways that reduce congestion…”)

So far the Chicago Wilderness steering committee has put together only vague plans for what a reserve might look like and may yet decide to do nothing. Its members aren’t even sure how many counties might be included. They have concluded that the customary core-buffer-transition zoning wouldn’t work well here, and UNESCO has invited them to be the first to propose a biosphere reserve design that would fit an urban area. “I think we’re ahead of New York on this one,” says Chicago Wilderness media representative Stephanie Folk. She suggests that a Chicago region biosphere reserve might instead be thought of as a network of places and organizations, but specifics are yet to come.

Declaring the entire Chicago region a UN biosphere reserve could be viewed as a culmination of the Seville strategy–or its most severe real-world test. In the third world countryside “sustainable development” might mean making a living from hosting ecotourists instead of logging the rain forest. What would the comparable shift be in Chicago? Who knows?

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Mike Werner.