At the halfway place: The University of Michigan Biological Station leads international recognition effort as UNESCO biosphere region

October 12, 2021
Contact: Morgan Sherburne morganls@umich.edu
The U-M Biological Station sign welcomes visitors to the property. Image credit: Alexis Rankin

The U-M Biological Station sign welcomes visitors to the property. Image credit: Alexis Rankin

“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.

Frank Ettawageshik of Harbor Springs suggested the Anishinaabemowin word that would become the new name of the Obtawaing Biosphere Region. Image credit: Frank Ettawageshik

Frank Ettawageshik of Harbor Springs suggested the Anishinaabemowin word that would become the new name of the Obtawaing Biosphere Region. Image credit: Frank Ettawageshik

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.”

Expanding, sustainably

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.

“Biosphere regions can be opportunities to explore and model new economies that nurture both people and ecosystems,” Schubel said. “Our current market economy is disconnected from the economy of nature and the biosphere, so environmental costs can be ‘externalized’ from our financial accounting, but they invariably become real costs to people and ecosystems.”

In all, about 15 organizations have signed on as Obtawaing partners, including Central Michigan University, which has a biological station on Beaver Island; several conservation groups and land conservancies; and five tribes, including the Little Traverse Bay Band of Odawa Indians.

“A diversity of groups and organizations are working on sustainability issues as well as multicultural, economic, environmental, geographic and biodiversity issues in the region. So we thought this would have some value in terms of establishing a regional identity, and a forum for discussing programs and objectives,” Nadelhoffer said.

“Sometimes we found that different groups were doing similar things and that if we worked together, we could actually have more impact. So why not have a forum that would provide an opportunity for us to actually talk with one another and leverage the work that we’re all doing so it would apply to the greater good?”

Shaping Obtawaing

At the same time Schubel and Nadelhoffer were beginning to grapple with the U-M Biological Station’s redesignation, Jon Allan was visiting a UNESCO biosphere reserve thousands of miles away, in Switzerland.

Allan, currently the academic and research program officer for U-M SEAS, first learned of the UNESCO biosphere program when he traveled to Europe in his then-capacity as director of the Office of the Great Lakes. To fill a hole in his schedule, he visited Entlebuch, Switzerland’s first UNESCO biosphere reserve.

“Entlebuch is the size of four or five of Michigan’s counties—17,000 people lived in this place,” Allan said. “I thought, ‘Here’s a group of people across seven communities that found such a value in their unified understanding of what this landscape meant, and how it was driving things like regional food identities.’

“They were locally branding things like gruyere cheese and other food products like those you see in Parma, Tuscany, Dijon and Burgundy—these sort of places that had identity, rooted in culture, history and place. It felt similar to some areas of our Great Lakes; however, it felt like a stronger identity and sense of cohesion than we see in many of our regions.”

During his visit to Entlebuch, Allan looked at a map of biosphere reserves across the world.

“I saw three dots in the Great Lakes side of North America. One was at Isle Royale, one was at the U-M Biological Station, and one was in the Lake Champlain watershed, on the boundary of the Adirondack Park,” Allan said. “I’m the guy who’s supposed to understand the significance of the Great Lakes, and not just the biological and hydrogeophysical elements of the lakes, but the fish and the culture and our people—and I had never heard of these three places designated as internationally important areas.”

At an April 2018 meeting in Brockville, Ontario, one of nine UNESCO Biosphere Reserves in the Great Lakes Basin, Allan reached out to Nadelhoffer to become involved.

Jason Tallant, data manager for the University of Michigan Biological Station, created a map of the Obtawaing Biosphere Region. Image credit: Jason Tallant/U-M Biological Station

Jason Tallant, data manager for the University of Michigan Biological Station, created a map of the Obtawaing Biosphere Region. Image credit: Jason Tallant/U-M Biological Station

UNESCO biosphere reserves consist of three interrelated zones. Each region has a core zone. This “strictly protected” zone is committed to the conservation of landscapes, ecosystems, species and genetic variation. Obtawaing has several core zones, including the U-M Biological Station in Pellston; the UMBS Chase Osborn Preserve; and an array of land preserves protected by organizations including the Central Michigan University Biological Station on Beaver Island, Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, sovereign tribal nations and a number of land conservancies.

Radiating out from these core zones are buffer zones, or areas “used for activities compatible with sound ecological practices that can reinforce scientific research, monitoring, training and education.” Obtawaing is unique among the world UNESCO biospheres for having numerous core areas, those areas where biological diversity is generated and sustained, according to Allan.

“It’s what I like to call the peppered landscape—it’s pretty highly fragmented. It’s not just Sleeping Bear National Lakeshore or the U-M Biological Station, but hundreds of both state and federal protected lands that will form the basis of a multiple core model,” Allan said. “So then, the question becomes, what knits them together? I’m not just saying what physically knits them together, like a path or a trail. But what intellectually and spiritually knits them together?”

U-M SEAS graduate student Daniela Fernández Méndez Jiménez; Jon Allan, the academic and research program officer at SEAS; and SEAS graduate student Samuel Frederickson visited Beaver Island as part of their master's project. Image credit: U-M SEAS student master's project team

U-M SEAS graduate student Daniela Fernández Méndez Jiménez; Jon Allan, the academic and research program officer at SEAS; and SEAS graduate student Samuel Frederickson visited Beaver Island as part of their master’s project. Image credit: U-M SEAS student master’s project team

This knitted area is what UNESCO calls the third zone, or the transition area, where the program hopes to help communities “foster socioculturally and ecologically sustainable economic and human activities.” It’s a zone in which leaders of the program seek to foster humans’ sustainable relationship to the environment they inhabit, and they enlisted the U-M SEAS graduate students to help document how people live and work in the region.

Graduate students Daniela Fernández Méndez Jiménez, Kate Montero and Samuel Frederickson began working with Allan as part of a project required for their master’s degree program. The students researched other biosphere regions and based on their research and visits to northern Michigan, aim to provide possible organizational structures that Obtawaing can implement, Fernández said.

“What really drew me to this project is that it seemed like it was a microcosm of what we need to do in the world, which is to collaborate with partners, to figure out how to move forward when it comes to environment and sustainability—especially with partners who have different points of views and different experiences and organizations that approach things very differently,” Fernández said, whose degree will be in behavior, education and communication as well as ecosystem science and management.

U-M undergraduates perform fieldwork in a flagship Northern Michigan dune habitat. Image credit: Alexis Rankin

U-M undergraduates perform fieldwork in a flagship Northern Michigan dune habitat. Image credit: Alexis Rankin

As part of their work on this project, the students joined Allan for tours of the Obtawaing Biosphere Region. They started in Cadillac and wound toward the Lake Michigan shoreline, making stops at sand dunes in Arcadia; the beach town of Elberta; Maple City and Cedar, where the students found a Polish community and cultural center; and over to Traverse City, renowned for its cherry orchards and wineries. During a second trip, the group visited Beaver Island and the U-M Biological Station, as well as other towns and cultural sites in the Tip of the Mitt.

For Frederickson, the trip was a way to see in person the land he was mapping as his contribution to the project. Along with Allan, he is creating a repository of spatial data—maps of rivers, watersheds, roads and other lands—that Obtawaing’s partners can access and use.

“This is a project that will be going on beyond our time at U-M,” said Frederickson, whose degree will be in geospatial data sciences and ecosystem science and management. “We’ve just been helping to get it on its feet and getting it into a position that will be successful for however long Obtawaing exists—hopefully forever.”

Building the foundation for a sustainable future

Schubel was a U-M undergraduate when he saw the plaque commemorating the station’s original status as a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve. Now, as the biological station’s resident biologist, he enthusiastically joined the group working on the biosphere’s periodic review.

“I discovered that the program was about developing this model of humans living in harmony with their natural surroundings and with other living beings with which they share space. Although it’s certainly an idealistic goal, I think it’s a real goal of this program,” Schubel said. “I also think that this program presents an opportunity for genuine cultural exchange—particularly with regional communities and cultures, including with regional tribes, which are both sovereign nations and local communities.”

Schubel is interested in how the aspirational goals of the program can be implemented in tangible ways. Industries such as manufacturing, health care and social assistance, and retail, accommodation and food make up a large portion of northern Michigan’s economic landscape, according to the Northern Lakes Economic Alliance, a nonprofit supporting economic development in the region. For Obtawaing’s tribal partners, commercial fishing is an important cultural and economic activity.

“It would be really powerful to have a program like this to partner with land grant universities and their extension offices to do outreach with local communities and help them achieve these goals of sustainable development,” he said. “We can also bring together other experts—economists, business and policy experts—to develop programming and policies that help local communities grow and attract employers who support a sustainable economy and a sustainable future.”

The group hopes that the spirit of Obtawaing will harmonize with the interests and rights of the people who live within its boundaries. But with the designation renewal, the group’s real work has only just begun, as Ettawageshik pointed out.

His perspective comes from a lifetime of serving: in tribal elected office, as a board member of several conservation organizations, as a delegate for many United Nations gatherings, and a long list of state and national boards dedicated to Indigenous rights—not the least of which has been working with the U.N. to legally protect Indigenous people’s traditional knowledge in a way that can co-exist with the view of the “rest of the world.”

He sees a through line from this example to the work of biosphere regions, the philosophy of which reflects relationships that Indigenous people have with the landscape in which they live.

“The example I give is fish: When our ancestors reserved fishing rights, they didn’t look at the water and say, ‘Those are our fish.’ Instead, they reserved the right to fish. What they understood this to mean is the right to sing for the fish, to dance for the fish, to pray for the fish and to catch and eat the fish. To live with the fish,” Ettawageshik said. “We reserved the right to maintain our relationship with fish. The point is, this relationship isn’t property-based; it’s relationship-based.

“The same thing is true for medicine plants, and it’s also true for air and water, for the view of the night sky and for Earth itself. We have a relationship with the whole, natural world. The Obtawaing Biosphere Region is a tool for protecting cultural and biological resources—focusing on the way human populations are interacting with the natural world, and trying to find ways to improve that interaction.”