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U-M Station Leads International Recognition as UNESCO Biosphere Region
Michigan Ag Connection - 10/15/2021

"Obtawaing" is the Anishinaabemowin word for "at the halfway place."

It was the name for the center of the Odawa village that used to stretch 16 miles along northern Lake Michigan, near the town of Harbor Springs and the hamlets Good Hart and Cross Village, says Frank Ettawageshik, currently the executive director of the United Tribes of Michigan and formerly the tribal chairman of the Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians in Harbor Springs.

Now, the word has been adapted to describe the Obtawaing Biosphere Region, a newly awarded and ambitious designation springing from the University of Michigan Biological Station in Pellston.

The designation is a renewal of the U-M Biological Station's status as a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, originally granted in 1979. The designation has also expanded: Originally, the biosphere solely included the 13,000 acres of lands managed by the U-M Biological Station. Now, as the name Obtawaing reflects, the biosphere region includes the converging areas of two Michigan Peninsulas, three Great Lakes and a diversity of cultures. It loosely spans Michigan's northern Lower Peninsula and southeastern Upper Peninsula, stretching from the Sleeping Bear National Lakeshore and across the Mackinac Straits to Sugar Island, near Sault Ste. Marie.

The redesignation effort, led by Knute Nadelhoffer, former director of the U-M Biological Station and professor emeritus in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, recognizes the region as a place of unique and diverse ecological, social and economic significance. It's one of 28 such biosphere reserves in the United States, and one of 727 biosphere reserves worldwide that together comprise the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization's World Network of Biosphere Reserves.

Rather than using the term "reserve" from the UNESCO program title, the Obtawaing group uses the word "region"--emphasizing the fact that the Obtawaing Biosphere Region, as for all U.S. biosphere regions, does not serve either a governing or regulatory role. Rather, it is developing as a collaborative group of organizations and institutions that are joining efforts to protect and sustain the environment, cultures, and economic health in the geographic center, or obtawaing, of the Great Lakes region.

That subtlety of language carries over to the region's name, Obtawaing, which Ettawageshik suggested at an October 2019 organizational meeting for the region's renewal. Throughout the process, representatives from governments, tribes and conservation organizations from northern Michigan helped shape what Obtawaing might become: a philosophical meeting place where people can come together to address and adapt to climate changes, economic and social justice issues, development pressure, and other environmental and cultural concerns while encouraging a sustainable economy.

Nadelhoffer, Ettawageshik and other leaders, including those from U-M School for Environment and Sustainability, also hope entities within the region can use the designation to help create a sense of cultural identity that describes northern Michigan.

"The name reflects the need to find the ways in which we can work together, to foster stewardship and cooperation amongst organizations who previously may have thought of themselves more locally rather than regionally," Ettawageshik said. "The promise of this is wide open and has yet to be realized. We've taken this initial step, but it's just now a framework within which things can happen, and we don't know what they're going to be yet."

By the time Nadelhoffer learned the U-M Biological Station would need to renew its designation about six years ago, the requirements of the biosphere program had changed.

"The 10,000 or 13,000 acres of the U-M Biological Station, being a special place, being a place where humans and nature intersect, where there's biodiversity--those were the criteria for the original biosphere program," Nadelhoffer said. "But UNESCO's expectations for inclusion in the World Network of Biosphere Reserves had expanded considerably during the 40 years since the biological station's original designation."

The UNESCO biosphere program had begun to focus on identifying and developing sustainable economies that don't threaten, and ideally support, local biodiversity, said Adam Schubel, the resident biologist at the U-M Biological Station's Pellston campus on Douglas Lake, who also worked on the renewal process. To replicate this in the Obtawaing region, the group needed to reach out to other organizations with common sustainability goals across northern Michigan.

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