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Backgrounder»Board of Directors» The first stirrings of attention to the prospect of having an area of the Bras d’Or Lake recognized within UNESCO’s Biosphere Reserve (BR) program happened during the early months of 2003. The focus was on the “canyon” located in St. Andrew’s Channel. It was an idea generated by the Bras d’Or Preservation Foundation and was rooted in the need to protect the canyon as a unique place. A steering committee assembled to explore what would be required for the canyon to qualify for this distinction. And so began a slow-moving, voluntary effort to match-up the attributes of the Channel’s canyon with the requirements of UNESCO’s program. At first, members of the steering committee were wary of the idea of a Reserve. It seemed to suggest setting aside a treasure that could not be easily available to citizens and visitors. Soon they realized that biosphere reserves are part of UNESCO’s Man and the Biosphere program, thereby including human activity as part of the reality of conserving a selected area. By the time it became clear that the canyon did not meet BR requirements the committee knew enough about the concept that it was comfortable with the much larger prospect of including all of the Lake and its watershed as the area to be nominated for Biosphere Reserve status.

What is a Biosphere Reserve?

Using UNESCO’s words, biosphere reserves are “areas of terrestrial and coastal ecosystems promoting solutions to reconcile the conservation of biodiversity with its sustainable use. They are internationally recognized, nominated by national governments and remain under sovereign jurisdiction of the states where they are located.” They are intended to achieve three basic functions: conservation, sustainable development, and logistic support for research and education. Together, biosphere reserves form a world network for promoting exchange of information, experience and personnel. Currently, there are 621 BR sites in 117 countries. Sixteen of those are in Canada. Official UNESCO language is difficult to probe. As the steering committee studied UNESCO’s BR requirements it saw that the St. Andrew’s canyon could not qualify because biosphere reserves are organized into three interrelated zones: a core area (or areas) where legal protection has been assigned by some level of government, a buffer zone surrounding the core, and a remaining transition area. While the canyon had no legally protected designation, the entire Lake and its watershed contain protected areas assigned by governments. Examples include the Middle River Wilderness Area, Whycocomagh Provincial Park, Ben Eoin Provincial Park, Bornish Hill Nature Reserve, Spectacle Island Game Sanctuary, and the Irish Cove EMAN site. A major fact about Biosphere Reserve designation is that it does not confer any new powers. In other words, decisions about what shall be legally protected rests with the various levels of elected governments, including First Nations’ Councils. The principal benefit of receiving BR designation would be to gain international recognition of the Bras d’Or Lake as a special world asset. That important advantage meant that if the Bras d’Or Lake and its watershed qualify as a Biosphere Reserve, the notion must be well-understood by the government entities whose jurisdictions include the Lake, and by residents for whom the Lake is a special part of their environment. Achieving such understanding of the implications of a Biosphere Reserve became the principal focus of the steering committee over the past two years.

Who had to be Persuaded?

An assortment of organizations/interests pursues programs designed to protect and improve the Lake. Evidence of their support for pursuing the Biosphere Reserve idea is found through their appointment of representatives to the Steering Committee. Although formal letters of support will not be sought until the Nomination Document is ready to be submitted, two organizations (the Bras d’Or Stewardship Society and the Bras d’Or Preservation Foundation) have already filed their expressions of support. Presentations describing the idea of a Biosphere Reserve designation have been made to each of the Municipal Councils (in the case of CBRM, to a committee of Council); to the Pitu’paq Partnership (an alliance of the Island’s Mayors, Wardens and Chiefs); to the Sustainable Communities Initiative (a network of federal, provincial and municipal government agencies whose jurisdiction relates to Cape Breton Island); to representatives of Cape Breton’s regional development agencies; to a meeting of the Collaborative Environmental Planning Initiative (an initiative to develop an overall management plan for the Bras d’Or and to coordinate existing management efforts); and, to several community groups. Support for designation has been strong, leaving no reason to conclude that any group or individual needs to be persuaded that a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve designation of the Lake is desirable. Principally because progress to date has been the result of voluntary effort, some of the job of informing the general public requires financial resources which have yet to be secured. To aid the task of securing funds, the Steering Committee applied for and received legal status under the Registry of Joint Stock Companies forming the Bras d’Or Lake Biosphere Reserve Association. Through donations from supporting organizations and regional development agencies we were able to distibute an informational pamphlet to over 5,ooo households; once in 2006 and again in 2007.

The Final Steps

UNESCO required completion of a very comprehensive Nomination Form. The Association was now confident that the community of residents around the Lake understands and supports the idea of applying for Biosphere Reserve status, and the job of completing the Nomination papers was done by June 2010! The Nomination was forwarded to the Canadian Commission for UNESCO (CCUNESCO) and the Canadian Man and the Biosphere Committee of CCUNESCO has endorsed the nomination! In February 2011 International Review Committee of the Man and the Biosphere program recommended its approval. The International Co-ordinating Council for the Man and the Biosphere Program met in June 2011 in Dresden Germany and we received the news of our designation on June 29, 2011!