Bioregionalism: Regaining Our Sense of Place

The North American Bioregional Congress: Reinhabiting Turtle Island

by Erik Haugland


“A growing number of people are recognizing that in order to secure the clean air, water and food that we need to healthfully survive, we have to become guardians of the places where we live”.

This statement by the first North American Biore­gional Congress defines the central goal of bioregion­alism: to re-establish the connection between people and the place where they live. Bioregionalism encourages people to learn about and live in harmony with the nature of their place. Bioregionalists call this process “reinhabiting”.

The word “bioregion” comes from the Greek word “bio” (life) and the Latin word “region” (boundary). A bioregion is thus a life-place, a geographic area whose rough boundaries are determined by nature, rather than by the accidents of political history. Our bioregion is, broadly speaking, our home; learning about, protect­ing, and restoring our home is what bioregionalism is all about.

A bioregional congress is a gathering where ecologically-oriented people meet and develop stra­tegies for saving and reclaiming their bioregion. The first bioregional congress in our area was the Cascadia Bioregional Congress, held in Olympia in August 1986. An “Ish River” congress is being planned for the summer of 1987.

Bioregionalists call the continent of North America “Turtle Island”, the name used by many of the indi­genous North Americans. The North American Bioregional Congresses focus on the whole ecological com­munity of North America. Some people come as representatives of their local bioregional group; others represent watersheds, or species of plants or animals.

Every two years, a North American Bioregional Congress is held, bringing people together from around the continent. The third North American Bioregional Congress (NABC HI) will be held near Vancouver, B.C. in the summer of 1988. The first planning meet­ing for NABC III will be in Seattle on February 14- 15th. A public meeting will be held on the evening of February 14th, giving people in Seattle an opportunity to meet bioreginalists from around the continent.

The first North American Bioregional Congress, held in the Ozarks in May of 1984, drew over 200 par­ticipants from around the continent. Much of the Congress was spent drafting resolutions (like the one quoted above) in committees and considering them for consensus by the entire group. There were committees on Eco-Feminism, Forests, Water, Native Peoples, Economics, and 11 other topics. There were also many educational, cultural and spiritual events; the word “congress” is Latin for “coming together”, and bioregional congresses do much more than simply pass resolutions. NABC I generated worldwide interest in the bioregional movement, and spurred on the develop­ment of local bioregional groups and local congresses.

The second North American Bioregional Congress (NABC II) was held in August 1986 in Northwestern Michigan-the Great Lakes bioregion. I can’t possibly summarize the events of NABC II in this article, but fortunately I don’t have to do so. Proceedings from NABC II are now available in a quality 90-page paper­bound book. These proceedings include art, poetry, and photographs from NABC II, as well as the text of the resolutions, workshops, and panels. They are an attractive and comprehensive statement of the biore­gional movement.

Copies are available for $10.00 plus $1.50 postage and handling from Alexandra Hart Publishing, Box 1010 Forestville CA, 95436.


The third North American Bioregional Congress will be held near Vancouver, B.C. in the summer of 1988. The proximity of NABC III to the Seattle area will permit increased participation from local people and groups. Several Seattle-area groups will be co-hosting NABC III, and are involved in the planning, process.

The first planning meeting for NABC III will be held in Seattle this month, hosted by the Cascadia Green Alliance. It will be a gathering of 10 to 15 peo­ple from around the continent who were selected to be the planning committee for NABC III. In addition to the planning meeting, there will be a public meeting so that people who are interested in learning more about bioregionalism can meet folks from around the con­tinent who have been involved in the bioregional movement.

SATURDAY, FEB 14th, 7:30 p.m.

The meeting will also feature a slide show and presentation about our local bioregions, Ish River and Cascadia. It should be an excellent way to learn about the current state of the bioregional movement. Call Jody at 789- 3620 for more information.



Bioregionalism seems particularly appropriate in our own area. Elsewhere, natural boundaries can be gradual, marked by subtle changes in flora; in our own area, they tend to be dramatic. Driving over the Cas­cades is like entering an entirely new world, a flat, relatively dry world with sparse vegetation which bears little resemblance to the world on this side of the mountains. Economic and political realities also differ on opposite sides of the mountains. On the western side, fishing, trade, and lumber are the major indus­tries; on the eastern side, farming is the dominant industry.

Seattle definitely has more in common with Van­couver, B.C. than with Spokane; yet Seattle and Spokane are in the same state while Seattle and Van­couver are in different nations. This fact does not reflect any natural boundaries or any rational division; it is an historical accident from colonial times. The straight line at the 49th parallel makes no sense to any­one but map makers. This line results in a host of difficulties. People from Spokane end up paying for . the cleanup of Puget Sound, while people from Van­couver do not, despite the fact that the Strait of Geor­gia and Puget Sound are really the same body of water. As a state agency, the Puget Sound Water Quality Authority cannot consider water pollution that comes from or goes into Canada; as if the water stopped at the border! Because of this straight line, we end up with such absurdities as multi-national salmon and Point Roberts, a Washington State town landlocked by Canadian land.

Bioregionalism offers a way of looking at the place where we live that makes sense, that avoids the ’’rational” approach of drawing straight lines across natural boundaries that just aren’t straight.


The Cascadia Bioregion (or “Pacific Cascadia”–the name is still being discussed) is the area between the Pacific Ocean and the Cascade and Coastal mountain ranges, from the Siskiyous in the south to the glaciers of mount Waddington in the north, where agriculture ceases and the mountains meet the sea. As the name “Cascadia” implies, it is a region of falling water; water crosses the region to the east in the form of everpresent clouds that rise from the Pacific Ocean, falls onto the western slopes of the Olympics, Cas­cades, and Coastal mountains, and returns to the ocean in the many rivers which flow from west to east. The salmon is the totem of the region, the spirit connecting the sea and the rivers, making the journey with the fal­ling waters. Tom Jay, in his essay “Salmon of the Heart”, calls the salmon the “tutelary spirit” of our bioregion.

The first Cascadia Bioregional Congress was held in Olympia in August 1986, hosted by the South Sound Bioregional Network. Around 100 people got together for a weekend of celebration and resolution­-making. Resolutions emerged in areas such as fores­try, cooperative economics, energy and appropriate technology, peace and non-violence, and many other areas. Proceedings are available for $6.00 from Greenet, CAB 305, The Evergreen State College, Olympia WA, 98505. Another Cascadia Bioregional Congress will be held in early summer of 1988, prob­ably in the Portland area.

One of the resolutions approved by consensus at the Cascadia Bioregional Congress encouraged people to hold more local bioregional congresses in the year between the first and second Cascadia Bioregional Congresses. The Ish River Bioregional Congress is the local answer to this resolution. “Ish River” is the name given to the drainage basin of Puget Sound and the Strait of Georgia; the name is taken from the numerous river names which end in “ish”, the word for “river” in the Salish native tongue.


“Ish River” – –
like breath,
like mist rising from a hillside

Duwamish, Snohomish, Stillaguamish, Samish,
Skokomish, Skykomish….all the Ish Rivers.

I live in the Ish River country
between two mountain ranges where
many rivers
run down to an inland sea.

-Robert Sund, Ish River
North Point Press, 1983

The Ish River bioregion was created during four glaciations of the Puget lobe of the Cordilleran Gla­cier, which has now retreated to the north of the biore­gion. The many rivers were created by the melting of this glacier; the enormous river from this meltingmight be called the original “Ish River”.

The first “Ish River” Bioregional Congress is being planned for the summer of 1987. The first planning meeting will be held from 1 to 5 p.m. on Sunday, February 15th. Call Constance at 283-7840 if you are interested in being involved in the planning process. If you would like to receive announcements of the Congress, send a card to: Ish River, c/o Cascadia Green Alliance, P.O. Box 71001, Seattle WA, 98107.


  1. Trace the water you drink from precipitation to tap.
  2. How many days till the moon is full (within 2 days)?
  3. What soil series are you standing on?
  4. What was the total rainfall last year?
  5. When was the last time a fire burned your area?
  6. What were the primary subsistence techniques of the culture that lived here before us?
  7. Name 5 native edible plants in our region and their season(s) of availability.
  8. From what direction do winter storms usually come?
  9. Where does your garbage go?
  10. How long is the growing season?
  11. On what day of the year are shadows the shortest?
  12. When do the deer rut and calve in our region?
  13. Name five grasses in our region-are any native?
  14. Name 5 resident and 5 migratory birds living here.
  15. What is the land use history of where you live?
  16. What primary geological event/process influenced [ the landforms of our area?
  17. What species have become extinct from our area?
  18. What are the major plants of our bioregion?
  19. Point north from where you are now.
  20. What wildflowers are first to bloom in the spring?

-adapted from Coevolution Quarterly

For more information on bioregionalism:

Dwellers in the Land
by Kirkpatrick Sale
Sierra Club Books
2034 Fillmore Street
San Francisco, CA 94115

This is a fine introduction to the bioregional movement’s general principles by a leading bioregionalist and author. Beginning with a discussion of the historical worship of “Gaea” (commonly known as the “earth-mother”), it goes on to consider bioregional principles and their application in such areas as economics and policy. 228 pages, clothbound, $14.95.

Raise the Stakes
Planet Drum Foundation
P.O. Box 31251
San Francisco, CA 94131

This excellent periodical is edited by Peter Berg, who has been given credit for coining the term “biore­gionalism” back in the early 70’s. The content is varied and always interesting, including such items as an interview with bioregional poet Gary Snyder, a dis­cussion of how bioregions are defined, and more.

Ecological Politics and Bioregionalism
by David Haenke
New Life Farm
P.O. Box 3
Drury, MO 65618

This short pamphlet discusses how the principles of bioregionalism are derived from ecological laws (such as “land animals do not defecate in the water”). The author was one of the primary organizers of the first two North American Bioregional Congresses and of the Ozark Area Community Congresses; he will be at the February 14th meeting in Seattle.

RAIN Magazine has printed several articles on bioregionalism, which they have combined into a package available for $4.50 from RAIN, 1135 SE Sal­mon, Portland OR, 97214.

In Context is a bioregionally-oriented quarterly from the Olympic Peninsula. P.O. Box 2107, Sequim WA 98392. $16.00 per year

The New Catalyst is a diverse and graphically pleasing quarterly bioregional newspaper from Lillooet, British Columbia. While they focus on their own region, they also print many general articles. Members of the New Catalyst collective will be at the Feb. 14th meeting in Seattle. $18.00 per year, PO Box 99, Lillooet BC, VOK IVO, Canada.

Bioregionalism: Regaining our Sense of Place by Erik Haugland was originally published in Waves: Puget Sound’s Progressive Voice Volume 2 Issue 2. Waves was a publication based out of Capitol Hill in Seattle in the 1980’s.

Liked it? Take a second to support Quinn Collard on Patreon!
Become a patron at Patreon!