Mont St. Hilaire Biosphere Reserve
In 1978, the mountain and its immediate surroundings were recognized as the first Biosphere Reserve in Canada under the UNESCO Man and the Biosphere Program.
This international network now includes 507 Biosphere Reserves in 102 countries. The Biosphere Reserve concept promotes management involving all local stakeholders to harmonize what at first often appear to be conflicting goals: nature conservation, economic development and cultural values. All Biosphere Reserves strive to pursue objectives in support of these goals in a complementary and balanced way:
- Nature conservation: conserve the diversity of species and the ecological integrity of local ecosystems.
- Economic development: encourage the sustainable development of local resources, both natural and human.
- Cultural enrichment: provide education, research and training supportive of conservation and sustainable development.
What is the Mont St Hilaire Biosphere Reserve in reality today?
Although the Mont St. Hilaire Biosphere Reserve was the first to be designated in Canada, it is only recently that the concept has matured and really begun to take root locally. In its early years the Biosphere Reserve program was more focused on protecting sites representing the natural landscapes of the world than on what would come to be called sustainable development. Hence Mont St. Hilaire was designated a Biosphere Reserve because it represented a fragment of the forests that once covered the St. Lawrence Valley. Some early documents speak of a large area surrounding the mountain, but in fact the working Biosphere Reserve appears quickly to have been reduced to the Gault Estate property held by the University. Through the 1980s the Biosphere Reserve designation had little real impact on the management of the reserve and essentially no recognition in local communities. This waning presence of the Biosphere Reserve concept was not unique to Mont St. Hilaire, and in the early 1990s UNESCO made serious efforts to reorient and revive the Biosphere Reserve concept by wedding it to the idea of sustainable development. The idea of sustainable development gained widening international support after the 1987 report by the Bruntland Commission, which sought means to harmonize conservation and human activity. The goals outlined above that now govern Biosphere Reserves follow from ideas expressed by the Bruntland Commission and codified in 1995 during the Seville meeting of the world Biosphere Reserves.
Following the Seville meeting, the Canadian Biosphere Reserve Commission, in a working alliance with Parks Canada, struggled to revitalize the Biosphere Reserve concept in Canada. The Commission drew on support from individuals who had been involved with Biosphere Reserves from their inception but also sought to involve others. Beginning in 1995, Martin Lechowicz decided to take on the moribund role of President of the Mont St. Hilaire Biosphere Reserve as a sort of natural complement to his appointment as Director for the Gault Nature Reserve. He was fortunate to become a founding member of the Board of the newly formed Canadian Biosphere Reserves Association (CBRA), which had been formed as part of the strategy of revitalizing the Canadian Biosphere Reserves network. In partnership with the Mont St. Hilaire Nature Conservation Centre, he has tried with some success to raise the profile of the Biosphere Reserve in local communities. We hosted the annual meeting of the Canadian Biosphere Reserves in 1997. We celebrated the 20th anniversary of the founding of the Mont St. Hilaire Biosphere Reserve at a dinner attended by about 80 local dignitaries as well as Patricia Roberts-Pichette, one of the two people instrumental in the original designation. We won the strong support of the town of Mont St. Hilaire, which in 1999 passed a bylaw endorsing the local application of the Biosphere Reserve concept. Most recently, the Mont St. Hilaire Nature Conservation Centre has taken the lead in extending the concept of the Mont St. Hilaire Biosphere Reserve beyond the borders of the University property. Eric Malka, the Associate Director of the Nature Centre, has taken over the role of Biosphere Reserve President and the University has assumed its more appropriate role as just another local landowner working with others to promote the goals of the Biosphere Reserve.