Many in State Ignorant of International Wildlife Reserve Program

Times Staff Writer

From the Northwest Arkansas Times, August 7, 1996.

People are ousted from homes that have been in their families for generations. Their livelihood is destroyed as their jobs are outlawed. Roads and public infrastructure are either destroyed or left to ruin. Children cower indoors as vicious animals roam the area.

While the above scenario may typify the scene of a war-torn, Third World nation, opponents of a federal initiative maintain it could all happen right here in the Ozarks if the Man and the Biosphere Program goes into effect.

A program that could create a government-controlled nature reserve encompassing much of southern Missouri and the northern third of Arkansas is apparently moving toward approval without the consent - or even the knowledge - of many Arkansas residents, including elected officials.

That is the contention of a growing number of Arkansans acquainting themselves with the state's consideration of establishing a Man and the Biosphere cooperative in the Ozark Highland area, a 3-million-acre region that straddles the borders of Arkansas and Missouri and includes portions of Oklahoma, Kansas and Illinois.

A Newton County woman, who asked that her name not be used, said in a recent interview with the Times she learned of the plans for the program, and its frightening implications, quite by chance. The wife of a minister, she received a religious magazine from a church member which contained an article outlining the Man and the Biosphere Program and the "rewilding" of America.

The article discussed some of the concerns surrounding the program - the designation of a huge bioregion, containing a core wilderness of hundreds of square miles, where no humans are allowed to live. Surrounding the core is a buffer zone, where people may live and do permitted work. In zones of cooperation, people relocated from the inner regions live under severe restrictions on the kinds of work they may do to earn their living. Corridors connect adjacent core areas.

The minister's wife said she read the material, but initially dismissed it as "alarmist."

A month later the woman was traveling with her husband in Tennessee when they decided to visit Smoky Mountain National Park. She said upon entering the park area, the signs identifying it as an "international Biosphere Reserve" overshadowed those bearing the park's name. The woman said she re-read the article when she returned home and began wondering whether the Man and the Biosphere Program would affect her home, sandwiched between the headwaters of the Buffalo National River and the Ozark National Forest.

The woman made a phone call to the federal building in Harrison and a representative of the National Park Service told her there were, in fact, plans to seek designation of the Ozark HIghland region as a Man and Biosphere reserve.

A dozen state agencies in Arkansas and Missouri were at that time considering signing an application for the designation. Action on the application could come by December.

The Newton County woman began educating herself on the program and in a month had gathered enough information about the program to really frighten her.

"I am not a political activist," she said. "I simply called and asked a question. ...Apparently I'm the only person in Arkansas who thought to ask this question and found out what's happening."

As surprised as she was by news of the Man and the Biosphere Program, the woman was even more shocked by how little information had been distributed both to the public and the government agencies about the program."

The people I have found in contacting these agencies that are being called upon to sign it themselves are basically in the dark about it," the woman said.

She also sensed a suspicion among the representatives of the agencies and a reluctance to discuss particulars of the program once they learned she was against it.

When she called each of the 12 agencies being asked to sign the man and biosphere agreement, the woman said, they were "very open" in initial conversations. On subsequent calls, after she announced her opposition to the program, she said, "they were very careful, like they had talked to someone higher up who cautioned them about talking to me."

A number of the agencies downplay the international aspects of the Man and Biosphere program. Organized in the United Nations in 1971, the Biosphere Reserve program divides the world into biomes, major types of natural environment, and seeks to preserve example biological systems intact for the indefinite future. The program has so far designated more than 300 reserves in 75 nations. The total area exceeds 405 million acres.

The woman said several agencies were unaware of the U.N. connection, which she felt could result in the loss of sovereignty over American property. Those who knew of it were confident it would have little effect on actual operations or policies. One said it would mean little more than "a U.N. plaque on the wall."

The sentiments of some MAB program backers was disconcerting, the woman said. A representative of the Nature Conservancy spoke of the program with a religious fervor, maintaining the human species is "the enemy in the web of life." She said the woman told her it was necessary to curb human development because "we are destroying all these other fragile things."

"She made it plain no matter what the cost to the human population, for the greater good, these things must be done. She said it is a race against the clock," the woman said.

Although work on establishing an Ozark Regions Biosphere has been underway since 1989, there has been little public awareness of it. The woman said she was told a feasibility study was conducted by the Ozark Man and Biosphere Steering Committee in 1991. She was told residents from across the region expressed support for the program. Documents from the National Park Service show 28 personal interviews were conducted in Arkansas and 24 in Missouri. There were also 16 telephone interviews of Arkansas residents and 18 Missouri phone interviews.

Told county judges were among elected officials interviewed, she contacted the county judges of both Newton and Boone counties. Eugene Villines, Newton County judge and a personal friend, told her he had no recollection of the interview, which would have occurred during his first year in office.

Likewise, Boone County Judge Dale Wagner said he did not remember the interview, although a subsequent check of his calendar from 1991 indicated he had met with representatives of the steering committee. She said Wagner told her he did not remember what the conversation was about, but felt sure those he spoke to did not describe the MAB program in the terms being used now.

There has also been little about the MAB in the popular media. Although she was assured many articles had been written about the program, she said National Parks Service officials could provide a single story, published in 1993 in "The Rackensack Monthly," a short-lived outdoors magazine printed in Pelsor, a small Newton County town.

The woman said since she has learned of the MAB program and its potential threats, she has felt compelled to alert the citizens of Arkansas to the issue. She has found allies in her cause in state property rights groups, including the Fayetteville-based Take Back Arkansas.

In Missouri the public is more aware of the biosphere program. She said a number of citizens groups there have been vocal in their opposition to the application for an Ozarks MAB. As a result, several of the Missouri agencies on the list of cooperative agencies are backing away from signing. "

But in Arkansas, the people don't know anything about it," she said.

The woman said once state and local officials are informed about the program, they are "astounded" at the level of control it would allow.

Apparently the news of growing unrest over the plan got to Gov. Mike Huckabee, who early this week ordered state agencies to hold off on signing letters expressing their support for the application.

Likewise, U.S. Rep. Tim Hutchinson, R-3rd District, has announced his support for private property rights. He plans to speak before a hearing of the House Resource Committee Sept. 12 on the American Land Sovereignty Protection Act of 1996. The bill, introduced by U.S. Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, restricts international land use designations such as those created by the MAB program.

A letter from Huckabee supporting the bill is also expected to be delivered to the committee.

But the Newton County woman remains concerned the Ozarks program, which lay dormant for several years, will resurface unless public opposition is persistent.

Mary Denham, recording secretary for Take Back Arkansas, said the Ozark biosphere is a key part of the national push for MAB cooperatives. She expects the struggle will continue.

Denham said the Newton County woman "has done a real service for the state of Arkansas" in her efforts to get out the news of the MAB program. She said grassroots efforts to fight MAB programs have been successful in other areas of the country.

People will die before they allow this to happen," Denham said. "The problem is they won't know about it until it's too late.They will be regulated into what's already coming down."