Riding Mountain Biosphere Reserve Contributes to Local Economy

Funding cuts affect ability to deliver programs

Erickson, Manitoba, February 5, 2014 – Biosphere reserves have the capacity to work with municipalities to build prosperous, vibrant and sustainable communities. They provide access to the United Nations’ vast research and project management resources. Imagine being able to tap into the knowledge base and capacity-building power of 621 biosphere reserves around the world, 16 of which are located in Canada. That is the opportunity that the Riding Mountain Biosphere Reserve (RMBR) provides to the 15-member municipalities that surround Riding Mountain National Park.

“Biosphere reserves play a crucial role in generating knowledge about how natural systems work and about how to maintain resilient ecosystems which contribute enormously valuable ecological services,” explained Valerie Pankratz, RMBR executive director. “At the same time these ecosystems can be used in sustainable ways to create income, employment and wealth.”

Since receiving biosphere designation from the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in 1986, RMBR has been involved in numerous projects that cross municipal boundaries to deal with complex issues like the Bovine Tuberculosis (TB). Since 2003, RMBR has facilitated the TB Stakeholders Advisory Committee (TB SAC) which has been an important link between cattle producers, hunters and outfitters, and the government agencies working to eradicate Bovine TB from the Riding Mountain region.

Other initiatives include education programs in water stewardship like “Living by the Water’s Edge,” a how-to manual for home and cottage owners living along waterways and lakeshores. RMBR has also created and curates the Native Species Garden at their Erickson office which provides information about planting and preserving native species of plants and trees. It also helps raise awareness about efforts to halt the spread of invasive species.

Growing the local economy

The “At the Farm Gate” program hosts three markets per year in communities around the park where producers and artisans have access to new customers and an ever growing legion of loyal repeat clients. Shopping locally has multiple benefits: money spent on these products stays in the regional economy; the craftspeople and farmers access new markets and revenue; and it provides a boost to the area’s tourism sector.

Caching Riding Mountain is another sustainable tourism initiative piloted by RMBR. This annual GPS adventure quest sends participants on a 24-hour tour of the biosphere. Working with local partners, RMBR organizes stops at a variety of local attractions that visitors might not normally discover on their own, thus promoting the cultural resources and natural beauty of the area.

Scientific research is another component of the biosphere’s mandate. RMBR has helped facilitate numerous research projects including an elk movement study, as well as the introduction of innovative beaver removal techniques. They are also participating in projects looking at the effects of climate change, and invasive species.

Looking to the future

Today however RMBR finds itself at a crossroads. After nearly three decades, RMBR’s future is being threatened by a funding shortfall. The post-recession economic reality has meant that environmental non-governmental organizations (ENGOs) are having to reinvent themselves in order to remain vital and effective.

Since Environment Canada’s funding agreement to biosphere reserves was cut in 2012, RMBR has been looking for alternative revenue sources.

A partial solution has been found through a contribution agreement with Parks Canada. They have agreed to pay some of the cost of a fund development plan whose goal is to make the Biosphere Reserve self-sufficient. This study and plan were well underway in 2012, but had to be put on hold after the federal budget cuts.

Reviving the fund development plan has injected fresh energy into RMBR. With its focus on maintaining biodiversity, healthy sustainable ecosystems, and vital sustainable communities, board members are eager to see that the untapped potential of this organization get used to help grow the economy and preserve local culture.

Preserving local history

“RMBR could coordinate a number of different projects like documenting oral histories in order to preserve the region’s stories of settlement, triumphs and tragedies, plagues, and disasters,” said board member Don Huisman. “Every municipality has a few sites and artifacts of local significance that could be catalogued, mapped and made known to a larger audience.”

Having this information available throughout the biosphere would be of interest to local residents and ex-pats originally from the area who have moved away. Knowing their local history helps bring communities together.

“Every municipality has a few interesting cultural heritage pieces,” explains Huisman who is also a councillor for the Town of Erickson, “The biosphere can be a link for all of these. For example, the last known building from the Whitewater POW camp is now a garage near Strathclair. The house of murdered park warden Lawrence Lees is now in Rossburn. Panels of wood made at Kippan’s Mill during the Depression exist all around the park. We can share that kind of information with the people who live here now, with those who have moved away, and with newcomers. Everyone has a piece of this history but if we put it all together we build a wonderful mosaic of our history and culture.”

Regional coordination during amalgamation

“The Biosphere Reserve has a lot to offer municipalities in the way of facilitation skills,” explains Ray Frey, chairman of RMBR. “RMBR can assist where there are contentious issues, especially cross-boundary, or as a result of amalgamation between municipal partners. Having an impartial third party chair a meeting helps keep the focus on needs and issues rather than emotions and history.”

Frey also noted that biosphere reserves are mandated to focus on sustainable development, environmental sciences, and cultural preservation. UNESCO provides support to biospheres for these activities through knowledge sharing and access to world experts in their fields. Many of these resources are out of reach for rural municipalities of 1000 or fewer residents, but the combined population of the region is 20,000 people, so sharing these assets at the biosphere level makes it more feasible.

European model

In Europe, public investment in biosphere reserves is significantly higher than in Canada. Governments there acknowledge the value of being in a biosphere reserve and invest on average $10 per person per year into theirs. In return, they make full use of their biosphere reserves’ capacity for conservation, development, communication, and logistical coordination. They have become Europe’s “laboratories of ideas” on questions of sustainable growth.

In the near future, RMBR board members will be asking member municipalities to consider supporting the organization through a contribution based on roll numbers.

“We could really help municipalities to grow. An investment in RMBR will pay dividends many times over,” explains Frey. “This resource has not been utilized to its fullest potential in the past. We invite the RMs to ask for assistance with their highest priority issues. We want them to be aware of what we can do for them.”

This is a critical time for RMBR. The activities mandated in their charter must be carried out in order to retain biosphere reserve status. Unfortunately, if RMBR were to lose its status, it will not get it back. Founders, board members and supporters of RMBR will be encouraging municipal leaders to support the organization and more importantly, to make use of its full potential.

Using the European experience as a blueprint, Pankratz acknowledges that their goals are big, but achievable.

“We would like RMBR to become known as an area dedicated to focusing on developing models for global, national and local cultural, biological ecosystem sustainability.”

For more information about RMBR activities in your area, visit www.rmbr.ca or call 204-636-2085.

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