What is a Bioregion?

From Wikipedia:

bioregion is an ecologically and geographically defined area that is smaller than a biogeographic realm, but larger than an ecoregion or an ecosystem, and is defined along watershed and hydrological boundaries.

A key difference between an ecoregion and bioregion, is that while ecoregions are based on general biophysical and ecosystem data, human settlement and cultural patterns play a key role for how a bioregion is defined.[1][2] A bioregion is defined along watershed and hydrological boundaries, and uses a combination of bioregional layers, beginning with the oldest “hard” lines; geologytopographytectonicswindfracture zones and continental divides, working its way through the “soft” lines: living systems such as soilecosystemsclimate, marine life, and the flora and fauna, and lastly the “human” lines: human geographyenergytransportationagriculturefoodmusiclanguagehistoryindigenous cultures, and ways of living within the context set into a place, and it’s limits to determine the final edges and boundaries.[3][4][5] This is summed up well by David McCloskey, author of the Cascadia Bioregion map: “An bioregion may be analyzed on physical, biological, and cultural levels. First, we map the landforms, geology, climate, and hydrology, and how these environmental factors work together to create a common template for life in that particular place. Second, we map the flora and fauna, especially the characteristic vegetative communities, and link them to their habitats. Third, we look at native peoples, western settlement, and current land-use patterns and problems, in interaction with the first two levels.[6]

A bioregion is defined as the largest physical boundaries where connections based on that place will make sense. The basic units of a bioregion are watersheds and hydrological basins, and a bioregion will always maintain the natural continuity and full extent of a watershed. While a bioregion may stretch across many watersheds, it will never divide or separate a water basin.[7] There is also an attempt to use the term in a rank-less generalist sense, similar to the terms “biogeographic area” or “biogeographic unit”.[8] It may be conceptually similar to an ecoprovince.[9] It is also differently used in the environmentalist context, being coined by Berg and Dasmann (1977).[10][11]

The term bioregion was originally coined by Allen Van Newkirk in 1972.[12] It was carried forward and developed by Raymond Dasmann and Peter Berg,[13][14] who founded the Planet Drum foundation in 1973,[15][12] located in San Francisco and which just celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2023.[16]

Planet Drum, from their website, defines a bioregion as:

a distinct area with coherent and interconnected plant and animal communities, including human and natural systems, often defined by a watershed. A bioregion is a whole ‘life-place’ with unique requirements for human inhabitation so that it will not be disrupted and injured.[15]

Peter Berg defined a bioregion at the Symposium on Biodiversity of Northwestern California, October 28–30, 1991:

A bioregion can be determined initially by the use of climatology, physiography, animal and plant geography, natural history and other descriptive natural sciences. The final boundaries of a bioregion are best described by the people who have lived within it, through human recognition of the realities of living-in-place. All life on the planet is interconnected in a few obvious ways, and in many more that remain barely explored. But there is a distinct resonance among living things and the factors which influence them that occurs specifically within each separate place on the planet. Discovering and describing that resonance is a way to describe a bioregion.[17][18]

Kirkpatrick Sale, another early pioneer of the idea of bioregions, defined it in 1974 by declaring that:

A bioregion is a part of the earth’s surface whose rough boundaries are determined by natural and human dictates, distinguishable from other areas by attributes of flora, fauna, water, climate, soils and land-forms, and human settlements and cultures those attributes give rise to. The borders between such areas are usually not rigid – nature works with more flexibility and fluidity than that – but the general contours of the regions themselves are not hard to identify, and indeed will probably be felt, understood, sensed or in some way known to many inhabitants, and particularly those still rooted in the land.[19][20]

Neil Burgess, Eric Dinerstein, David Olson, Jennifer Hales in their papers funded by the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) on terrestrial and marine ecoregions in 2004 define a bioregion as “geographic clusters of ecoregions that may span several habitat types, but have strong biogeographic affinities, particularly at taxonomic levels higher than the species level (genus, family)”[21][22][23]. However, the World Wide Fund for Nature primarily uses Ecoregions as the basis for their taxonomy, classifying 867 terrestrial ecoregions, into 14 different biomes such as forests, grasslands, or deserts.[24] They have highlighted what they call the Global 200, 200 ecoregions of important biodiversity at risk, set within a system of 30 biomes and biogeographic realms to facilitate a representation analysis[25]. A search of the WWF website does not show any use of the term bioregion.[26]

Bioregions as a Key Component of Bioregionalism as a general principle[edit]

The definition and idea of a bioregion emerged from and form the foundation for a set of ethics, and philosophy called Bioregionalism.

As the environmental movement developed in the 1970s, a counter-current emerged calling itself bioregionalism. Developing primarily in Western North America, this movement sought to address environmental issues through a politics, practice, and emerging community and personal identity that was based on a local and ecologically attuned sense-of-place. Early bioregionalists felt such an approach might prove more fruitful than efforts focused at the national and international levels.[27]

In the early 1970s, the contemporary vision of bioregionalism began to be formed through collaboration between natural scientists, social and environmental activists, artists and writers, community leaders, and back-to-the-landers who worked directly with natural resources. They wanted to do “more than just save what’s left” in regard to nature, wildness and the biosphere. Throughout the late 1970s and early 1980s Peter Berg and other like-minded individuals, including Judy Goldhaft, Raymond Dasmann, Kirkpatrick Sale, Judith Plant, Eleanor Wright, Doug Aberley, Stephanie Mills, Jim Dodge, Freeman House, Van Andruss, David Haenke, and Gary Snyder, sought to create a locally rooted environmental movement, one they decided to call bioregionalism, from the ground up. This new form of environmentalism was not reactive, responding to every all-too-frequent threat or calamity, but pro-active, seeking to create the conditions for a more ecologically suitable world in which such threats and calamities were avoided.[27]

During the 1970s, Planet Drum Foundation in San Francisco became a voice for this sentiment through its publications about applying place-based ideas to environmental practices, society, cultural expressions, philosophy, politics, and other subjects. By the late 70s, bioregional organizations such as the Frisco Bay Mussel Group in northern California and Ozark Area Community Congress on the Kansas-Missouri border were founded to articulate local economic, social, political, and cultural agendas. The Mussel Group eventually played a pivotal role in persuading the public to vote down a bioregionally lethal Peripheral Canal proposal to divert fresh water away from San Francisco Bay. The Ozarks group has held continuous annual gatherings to promote and support place-based activities. At present there are hundreds of similar groups (and publications) in North and South America, Europe, Japan, and Australia.[28]

Peter Berg, founder of the Planet Drum Foundation in San Francisco in 1973.

In the 1980’s, the term bioregion began to be picked up by state and federal agencies, and global bodies such as the United Nation and World Wildlife Foundation. However, these government entities sought more technocratic solutions, and tried to separate human cultures living in a place, from the ecological data they were collecting. Raymond Dasmann and Peter Berg pushed back against these global bodies that were attempting to use the term bioregion in a strictly ecological sense, which separated humans from the ecosystems they lived in. Environmental activist and one of the original Diggers, Peter Berg, for example, had attended the 1972 UN conference on the environment in Stockholm and came away convinced that such global gatherings and institutions were not going to solve the problem, indeed to some degree they very much were the problem. Cheryll Glotfelty and Eve Quesnel explain in their recent compilation of Berg’s writing, The Biosphere and the Bioregion, in 1977 Berg and ecologist Raymond Dasmann published an article titled “Reinhabiting California” saying:

“Reinhabitation involves developing a bioregional identity, something most North Americans have lost or have never possessed. We define bioregion in a sense different from the biotic provinces of Raymond Dasmann (1973) or the biogeographical province of Miklos Udvardy. The term refers both to geographical terrain and a terrain of consciousness—to a place and the ideas that have developed about how to live in that place. Within a bioregion, the conditions that influence life are similar, and these, in turn, have influenced human occupancy.”

— Reinhabitaing California by Peter Berg and raymond F. Dasmann. Published in Home: A Bioregional Reader.

This manifesto defined bioregions as places related to but distinct from the biogeographical provinces that ecologists and geographers had been developing by adding a cultural dimension to the geographical concept.[27][29][30]

Because it is a cultural idea, the description of a specific bioregion is drawn using information from not only the natural sciences but also many other sources. It is a geographic terrain and a terrain of consciousness.[31] Anthropological studies, historical accounts, social developments, customs, traditions, and arts can all play a part. Bioregionalism utilizes them to accomplish three main goals:

  1. restore and maintain local natural systems;
  2. practice sustainable ways to satisfy basic human needs such as food, water, shelter, and materials; and
  3. support the work of reinhabitation.[28]

The latter is accomplished through proactive projects, employment and education, as well as by engaging in protests against the destruction of natural elements in a life-place.[32]

Bioregional goals play out in a spectrum of different ways for different places. In North America, for example, restoring native prairie grasses is a basic ecosystem-rebuilding activity for reinhabitants of the Kansas Area Watershed Bioregion in the Midwest, whereas bringing back salmon runs has a high priority for Shasta Bioregion in northern California. Using geothermal and wind as a renewable energy source fits Cascadia Bioregion in the rainy Pacific Northwest. Less cloudy skies in the Southwest’s sparsely vegetated Sonoran Desert Bioregion make direct solar energy a more plentiful alternative there. Education about local natural characteristics and conditions varies diversely from place to place, along with bioregionally significant social and political issues.[28]

Map of the Salish Sea Bioregion