A 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. People are counted as an integral part of the definition of a bioregion.[1]

The definition and idea of a bioregion emerged from, and form the foundation for, a set of ethics and philosophy called Bioregionalism. A key difference between an ecoregions and biogeography and the term 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.[2][3] A bioregion is defined along watershed and hydrological boundaries, and uses a combination of bioregional layers, beginning with the oldest "hard" lines; geology, topography, tectonics, wind, fracture zones and continental divides, working its way through the "soft" lines: living systems such as soil, ecosystems, climate, marine life, and the flora and fauna, and lastly the "human" lines: human geography, energy, transportation, agriculture, food, music, language, history, indigenous cultures, and ways of living within the context set into a place, and it's limits to determine the final edges and boundaries.[4][5][6] 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.[7]"

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.[8] There is also an attempt to use the term in a rank-less generalist sense, similar to the terms "biogeographic area" or "biogeographic unit".[9] It may be conceptually similar to an ecoprovince.[10]

History of the term "Bioregion"

The term bioregion and bioregionalism is credited to Allen Van Newkirk, a Canadian poet and biogeographer.[11][12][1] Newkirk had met Peter Berg (another early scholar on Bioregionalism) in San Francisco in 1969 and again in Nova Scotia in 1971. He would go on to found the Institute for Bioregional Research and issued a series of short papers in this time period, which would start to circulate the idea of "bioregion". Peter Berg, who would go on to found the Planet Drum foundation, and become a leading proponent of "bioregions" learned of the term in 1971 while Judy Goldhaft and Peter Berg were staying with Allen Van Newkirk, before Berg attended the first United Nations Conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm during June 1972.[13][14] Berg would go on to found the Planet Drum Foundation in 1973, and they published their first Bioregional Bundle in that year, that also included a definition of a bioregion.[15][16]

As conceived by Van Newkirk, bioregionalism is presented as a technical process of identifying “biogeographically interpreted culture areas…called bioregions”. Within these territories, resident human populations would “restore plant and animal diversity,” “aid in the conservation and restoration of wild eco-systems,” and “discover regional models for new and relatively non-arbitrary scales of human activity in relation to the biological realities of the natural landscape”.[11] His first published article in a mainstream magazine was in 1975 in his article Bioregions: Towards Bioregional Strategy in Environmental Conservation.[11][1] In the article, Allen Van Newkirk defines a bioregion as:

“Bioregions are tentatively defined as biologically significant areas of the Earth’s surface which can be mapped and discussed as distinct existing patterns of plant, animal, and habitat distributions as related to range patterns and… deformations, attributed to one or more successive occupying populations of the culture-bearing animal (aka humans)....Towards this end a group of projects relating to bioregions or themes of applied human biogeography is envisaged.

— Allen Van Newkirk, Bioregions: Towards Bioregional Strategies for Human Culture, Environmental Conservation. 1975


For Newkirk, the term Bioregion was a way to combine human culture with earlier work done on Biotic Provinces, and were seen "to be distinguisehed from biotic provinces", and instead he called this new field "regional human biogeography" and was the first to use terms such as "bioregional strategies" and "bioregional framework" for adapting human cultures into a place.[12] This idea was carried forward and developed by ecologist Raymond Dasmann and Peter Berg in article they co-authored called Reinhabiting California in 1977, which rebuked earlier ecologist efforts to only use biotic provinces, and biogeography which excluded humans from the definition of bioregion.,[18][19][20][21]

Peter Berg and Judy Goldhaft founded the Planet Drum foundation in 1973,[22][17] located in San Francisco and which just celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2023.[23] Planet Drum, from their website, defines a bioregion as:

A bioregion is a geographical area with coherent and interconnected plant and animal communities, and other natural characteristics (often defined by a watershed) plus the cultural values that humans have developed for living in harmony with these natural systems. Because it is a cultural idea, the description of a specific bioregion uses information from both the natural sciences and other sources. Each bioregion is a whole “life-place” with unique requirements for human inhabitation so that it will not be disrupted and injured. People are counted as an integral aspect of a place’s life.[22]

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.[24][25]

Thomas Berry, an educator, environmentalist, activist and priest, who authored the United nations World Charter for Nature, and historian of the Hudson River Valley was also deeply rooted in the bioregional movement, and helping bioregionalism spread to the east coast of North America.[26] He defined a Bioregion as:

A bioregion is simply an indenfidable geographic area whose life systems are self-contained, self- sustaining and self renewing. A bioregion you might say, is a basic unit within the natural system of earth. Another way to define a bioregion is in terms of watersheds. Bioregions must develop human populations that accord with their natural context. The human is not exempt from being part of the basic inventory in a bioregion.

— Thomas Berry, Bioregionalism: A Worldwide Movement Honors Local Culture and 'Human-Scale' Economies, The Terrytown Letter. No. 41 September 1984.

Kirkpatrick Sale another early pioneer of the idea of bioregions, defined it in his book Dwellers in the Land: A bioregional vision 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.[27][28]

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)".[29][30][31] 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.[32] 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.[33] A search of the WWF website does not show any use of the term bioregion.[34]

"Bioregions" and "Applied Human Biogeography" as different from "Biogeography"

One of the other early proponents of bioregionalism, and who helped define what a bioregion is, was American biologist and environmental scientist Raymond F. Dasmann. Dasmann studied at UC Berkeley under the legendary wildlife biologist Aldo Leopold, and earned his Ph.D. in zoology in 1954. He began his academic career at Humboldt State University, where he was a professor of natural resources from 1954 until 1965. During the 1960s, he worked at the Conservation Foundation in Washington, D.C., as Director of International Programs and was also a consultant on the development of the 1972 Stockholm Conference on the Human Environment. In the 1970s he worked with UNESCO where he initiated the Man and the Biosphere Programme(MAB), an international research and conservation program. During the same period he was Senior Ecologist for the International Union for Conservation of Nature in Switzerland, initiating global conservation programs which earned him the highest honors awarded by The Wildlife Society, and the Smithsonian Institution.[35][36]

Working with Peter Berg, and also contemporary with Allen Van Newkirk, Dasmann was one of the pioneers in developing the definition for the term "Bioregion", as well as conservation concepts of "Eco-development" and "biological diversity," and identified the crucial importance of recognizing indigenous peoples and their cultures in efforts to conserve natural landscapes.[37]

In the 1980s, 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. Peter Berg and ecologist Raymond Dasmann said in their 1977 article "Reinhabiting California":

"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."

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

This article defined bioregions as distinct from biogeographical and biotic provinces that ecologists and geographers had been developing by adding a human and cultural lens to the strictly ecological idea.[38][37][39]

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.[40] 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.[41]

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.[42]

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.[41]


Main article: Ecoregion

Ecoregions are the "rooms in the house of a bioregion" and stand for "regional ecosystem". An ecoregion includes geography, ecology, and culture as part of its definition.[7] The purpose of mapping is to help provide a framework for the management of connected natural systems and resources, and to help people better identify with the land, and for better political, economic and ecological organization. They can be referred to both internally, within an ecoregion, and externally, in context of the larger region it is part of.

Ecoregions are defined using natural boundaries, and can often be soft and blurry, rather than many current maps, which depict single lines, or hard lines on a map. An ecoregion includes many layers of information, which together can help represent a region or ecosystem. No one layer represents everything, and an ecoregion can include information like temperature, precipitation, elevation, vegetation, wind, mountains, biodiversity, all of which comes together to help map the flow of energy, water and matter. Because ecosystems are connected and open, ecoregions are mapped using contiguous watersheds and similar patterns found using things like landforms, tectonics, rivers, breaks and major cultural boundaries, sometimes crossing other natural barriers where these similarities overlap. To understand the complexity of an entire bioregion, understanding ecoregions, or the rooms in the house, is very important. Ecoregions are smaller than a bioregion, and larger than a minor watersheds, though may be smaller than larger watersheds.[7]

The history of the term is somewhat vague, and it had been used in many contexts: forest classifications (Loucks, 1962), biome classifications (Bailey, 1976, 2014), biogeographic classifications (WWF/Global 200 scheme of Olson & Dinerstein, 1998), etc.[43][44][45][46][47] The concept of ecoregion applied by Bailey gives more importance to ecological criteria and climate, while the WWF concept gives more importance to biogeography, that is, the distribution of distinct species assemblages.[46]


Main article: Cascadia (bioregion)

Map of the Cascadia bioregion including Canadian provinces and United States borders
The Cascadia bioregion

One example of a bioregion is the Cascadia Bioregion, located along the Northwestern rim of North America. The Cascadia bioregion contains 75 distinct ecoregions, and extends for more than 2,500 miles (4,000 km) from the Copper River in Southern Alaska, to Cape Mendocino, approximately 200 miles north of San Francisco, and east as far as the Yellowstone Caldera and continental divide.[48]

The Cascadia Bioregion encompasses all of the state of Washington, all but the southeastern corner of Idaho, and portions of Oregon, California, Nevada, Utah, Wyoming, Montana, Alaska, Yukon, and British Columbia. Bioregions are geographically based areas defined by land or soil composition, watershed, climate, flora, and fauna. The Cascadia Bioregion stretches along the entire watershed of the Columbia River (as far as the Continental Divide), as well as the Cascade Range from Northern California well into Canada. It's also considered to include the associated ocean and seas and their ecosystems out to the continental slope. The delineation of a bioregion has environmental stewardship as its primary goal, with the belief that political boundaries should match ecological and cultural boundaries.[49]

The name "Cascadia" was first applied to the whole geologic region by Bates McKee in his 1972 geology textbook Cascadia; the geologic evolution of the Pacific Northwest. Later the name was adopted by David McCloskey, a Seattle University sociology professor, to describe it as a bioregion. McCloskey describes Cascadia as "a land of falling waters." He notes the blending of the natural integrity and the sociocultural unity that gives Cascadia its definition.[50]

See also


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  10. ^ Ecological Framework of Canada – Levels of Generalization
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