Biosphere Reserves

Representing the world’s major ecosystems, biosphere reserves provide study ecosystems for the United Nations Man and the Biosphere Programme. The program employs science to harmonize relationships between people and their environments. The goal: to improve human livelihoods while safeguarding natural ecosystems.

Biosphere reserves encourage research into biodiversity loss, climate change, environmental monitoring, and sustainable development. This work develops solutions relevant to local cultures and environments. 

Five NRS reserves have been designated as part of three biosphere reserves. Each biosphere reserve represents a distinct habitat type, and encompasses protected lands administered by the federal government, the state of California, land trusts, universities, and others.

Santa Cruz Island
Santa Cruz Island. Image credit: Lobsang Wangdu

Channel Islands Biosphere Reserve

The eight California Channel Islands offer some of the least-spoiled examples of southern California coastal habitats. Although invasive species, grazing, and fishing have altered these ecosystems to some extent, habitat management and fishing regulations are returning this biosphere reserve to a more natural state. Terrestrial habitats include evergreen sclerophyllous woodlands and coastal sage scrub. Offshore waters are bathed in warm and cool currents supporting a phenomenal variety of species. Giant kelp, rockfish, and marine invertebrates flourish here, attracting seabirds, pinnipeds, and protected species such as southern sea otters and blue whales. The NRS’s Santa Cruz Island Reserve maintains a field station and facilitates research on an island formerly used as a cattle ranch. The entire biosphere reserve is now protected as a National Park and National Marine Sanctuary.

Harbor seals at Bodega Marine Reserve. Image credit: Clayton Anderson

Golden Gate Biosphere Reserve

The lands within the Golden Gate Biosphere Reserve offer recreation access, education, and other ecosystem services for over 7 million residents of the San Francisco Bay Area. Human populations around the San Francisco Bay Area exert intense ecological pressures in the form of agriculture, fisheries, transportation, manufacturing, and tourism. Ecosystems are dominated by evergreen sclerophyllous woodland, but include coastal prairie, chaparral, coastal dunes, tidepools, and marshes. Two NRS reserves are part of the Golden Gate Biosphere Reserve: Bodega Marine Reserve and Point Reyes Field Station. Bodega Marine Reserve includes many of these habitats at a site featuring one of the largest marine laboratories on the West Coast. Meanwhile, Point Reyes Field Station offers accommodations and a laboratory for those seeking to study and explore 71,000-acre Point Reyes National Seashore, a medley of wave-tossed shorelines, forested ridges, expansive wetlands, and working ranches. The NRS is among 13 partners that administer protected areas within this biosphere reserve, which range from water districts to land trusts, state and federal parks, universities and non-profit organizations. 

Bighorn sheep
Bighorn sheep, Boyd Deep Canyon Desert Research Center. Image credit: Mark Chappell

Mojave and Colorado Deserts Biosphere Reserve

The hottest, driest, and lowest locations in North America are part of this biosphere reserve, which features sand dunes, creosote scrub, Joshua tree woodlands. These protected areas also straddle three types of warm deserts: the Sonoran; its lower elevation sub-region, the Colorado; and the higher elevation Mojave. Among the least densely populated areas of California, human influences here center on tourism, off-road vehicle use, and trespass grazing. The NRS’s Boyd Deep Canyon Desert Research Center and Steele/Burnand Anza-Borrego Desert Research Center provide field station facilities in areas where amenities are few and far between. Other protected lands within this biosphere reserve include Death Valley and Joshua Tree national parks, Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, and Santa Rosa and San Jacinto Mountains national monuments.