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Electric Sunset by Shawn Burns

Electric Sunset by Shawn Burns

35th Anniversary Celebrating the Pinelands' Designation as a UNESCO Biosphere Region

The Pinelands celebrate 35 years as a UNESCO Biosphere Region!

December 4, 2023


What do the Pinelands have in common with the Everglades, Germany’s Black Forest, and Mount Olympus? They are all UNESCO Biosphere Reserves! UNESCO stands for United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. This year, the New Jersey Pinelands celebrate its 35th anniversary of this designation. Cliff McCreedy, Science and Stewardship Coordinator for the National Park Service and a member of the steering committee for the US Biosphere Network, paid a visit to the New Jersey Pinelands in November and gave a presentation to the Pinelands Commission on the network.

In 1988, the Pinelands were nominated to join this network of sites that promote “solutions reconciling the conservation of biodiversity with its sustainable use” (UNESCO). In contrast to national parks like Yellowstone and Yosemite, Biosphere Reserves like the Pinelands are often working landscapes that can serve as models for sustainable development. The program is voluntary, and non-regulatory, so local or federal governments maintain sovereignty over these lands.

Biosphere Reserves are the only UN program with an explicit scientific mandate, which supports research in ecological sciences, water security, and earth sciences. It implements programs through over 50 associated centers conducting research in water, renewable energy, science policy, biotechnology, geosciences, the basic sciences, and remote sensing.  It also serves as a vehicle for collaboration between member states to address their common issues through knowledge-sharing. There are 748 biosphere reserves in 134 countries, each of which ideally consists of three ‘zones’, as described on the UNESCO website:

Figure 1: Illustration of the zones that typically comprise a biosphere reserve, with a core area (3), buffer zone (2), and transition area (3). Image produced by Del Hambre for UNESCO.

Core Areas (#3 in the graphic above): “They comprise a strictly protected zone that contributes to the conservation of landscapes, ecosystems, species and genetic variation.”

Buffer Zones (#2 in the graphic above): “They surround or adjoin the core area(s), and are used for activities compatible with sound ecological practices that can reinforce scientific research, monitoring, training, and education.”

Transition Areas (#1 in the graphic above): “The transition area is where communities foster socio-culturally and ecologically sustainable economic and human activities.”

The websites for most reserves report how much land area is found in each of these zones, but the Pinelands don’t fit this mold exactly. The New Jersey Pinelands Biosphere Reserve site lists 438,210 hectares (or 1,082,840 acres) as being its “core area”, which encompasses the entirety of the Pinelands region; however, this core area designation aligns most closely with the Preservation Area District (less than a third of this area)—even this area does allow some exceptions such as infill development between existing structures and ‘cultural housing’. It is similarly difficult to fit the remaining Pinelands Management Areas neatly into either of the two remaining zones, as many serve some combination of transition and buffer roles.

It is significant that the Pinelands remain an active member of the network. In 2011, the U.S. stopped paying its dues to the organization, and in 2017 the Trump administration formally withdrew the U.S. from UNESCO. In one fell swoop, 17 U.S. biospheres were removed from the network, to be followed by another two in 2018 and 2019. 28 U.S. biospheres remain. Our closest counterparts can be found to the north in the Champlain-Adirondack Biosphere Reserve and to the south in the Virginia Coast Biosphere Reserve.

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