Historic wooden building in Great Smoky Mountains National Park (left) photograph courtesy of the National Park Service. San Juan National Historic Site in Puerto Rico (right) photograph courtesy of the National Park Service.
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World Heritage Sites in the United States

World Heritage Sites in the United States:
A Perspective from the National Park Service

By Stephen Morris, Chief of the National Park Service Office of International Affairs

More than 40 years ago, the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) adopted the World Heritage Convention, a pioneering treaty for international cooperation in the preservation of the world’s most significant cultural and natural treasures.  The United States played a key role in developing the Convention, which itself is part of the global outgrowth and evolution of the American national park idea.  Since 1978, the United States has nominated some of its most iconic sites, as well as some lesser-known ones, for inclusion on the prestigious World Heritage List.  To date, 22 U.S. sites have been selected and inscribed on the World Heritage List.

Grand Canyon National Park. Photograph courtesy of the National Park Service.Grand Canyon National Park is a World Heritage Site
National Park Service

The primary purposes of the World Heritage Convention are to enhance worldwide understanding and appreciation of our shared heritage and through international cooperation help preserve a relatively small number of exceptional cultural and natural properties around the world that have been formally determined to possess “outstanding universal value” to humanity.  Just as national parks are set aside on behalf of an entire nation, World Heritage Sites, though remaining under the management of their respective countries, have been identified as having such universal significance that the entire global community has a stake in their conservation.

Coordination of U.S. participation in the Convention is assigned by law to the Secretary of the Interior, and responsibility for carrying this out has been delegated to the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Fish and Wildlife and Parks.  The National Park Service’s Office of International Affairs (OIA) serves as the staff office with day-to-day responsibility for the program.  OIA oversees the development of nomination files and manages the process for adding prospective sites to the U.S. Tentative, or candidate, List for possible future nomination.  OIA also coordinates reporting to the World Heritage Committee on the status of U.S. World Heritage sites.

Everglades National Park. Photograph courtesy of the National Park Service.Everglades National Park is a World Heritage Site
National Park Service

The U.S. has played a leadership role in the Convention since its inception, having been the first country to ratify the Convention in 1973 and having hosted the first session of the World Heritage Committee at which properties were inscribed on the World Heritage List in 1978.  Included among the first 12 inaugural World Heritage Sites were Yellowstone National Park and Mesa Verde National Park.  In nominating these parks, one famous for its spectacular natural features and the other an iconic emblem of ancient Indian culture, the U.S. was making a point of including both natural and cultural sites on the World Heritage List.  The notion of preserving both nature and culture through a single international conservation treaty was originally promoted by the U.S. and continues to make the World Heritage Convention unique among international conservation instruments.

In the early years of the program, the U.S. nominated areas under the administration of the National Park Service.  There were a number of reasons for this, primarily because the National Park System offers so many excellent candidates, including as it does some of the nation’s most important natural and cultural treasures.  Secondly, the fact that these sites were under the exclusive jurisdiction and direct management of the Federal government ensured their long-term preservation and simplified the nomination process, as there was no need to consult extensively with other levels of government or private parties.  Given that the1980 Amendments to the National Historic Preservation Act require all non-Federal property owners to consent in writing to having their property nominated to the World Heritage List, nominating U.S. sites with private owners involves a much lengthier process with extensive public outreach and careful negotiations.   For this reason, and unlike most of the rest of the world, in the U.S. it has never been possible to nominate historic towns or districts with a multitude of privately owned properties to the World Heritage List.

Eventually, the U.S. did expand its portfolio of World Heritage Sites beyond National Parks by nominating Monticello and the University of Virginia, owned respectively by a private foundation and the Commonwealth of Virginia.  It also nominated Cahokia Mounds, owned by the State of Illinois, as well as Taos Pueblo, which is under the jurisdiction of a tribal government.  The most recent U.S. site added to the World Heritage List is Poverty Point State Historic Site in Louisiana.   The U.S., along with Canada, helped pioneer the concept of “trans-boundary” World Heritage Sites, a single World Heritage Site with components in two or more countries, by nominating two complexes of parks along the U.S.-Canada border.

The road to inclusion on the World Heritage List is a long one and success is not always assured. Over the years, several U.S. nominations  were not accepted by the World Heritage Committee, made up of a rotating group of 21 nations elected to a four year term.  The Committee which meets annually to consider proposed nominations is the ultimate arbiter of what is added to the List.  However, before a nomination reaches the Committee, several years will have already been spent putting together the nomination dossier.
The Redwoods of Redwood National Park are international treasures. Photograph courtesy of the National Park Service. The redwood trees of Redwood National and
State Parks are international treasures.
National Park Service

The first step in the nomination process is inclusion in a country’s Tentative List.  The U.S. Tentative List was re-issued in 2008 and included 14 properties or groups of properties deemed eligible for nomination (so far two have been successfully inscribed).  The U.S. is planning on revising the current Tentative List by 2016.  The process by which the list will be revised has not yet been determined.  There are many potentially worthy candidates, but the number of sites that can be added is limited, given that by the rules of the World Heritage Committee countries can only nominate two sites per year.  When a country puts a site forward, its nomination is reviewed by one of the Committee’s advisory bodies, either the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS) for cultural properties, or the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) for natural properties.  The review includes an on-the-ground evaluation of the proposed site as well as desk reviews of the nomination dossier by subject matter experts.  The advisory bodies make recommendations to the World Heritage Committee as to whether or not the proposed site meets the criteria for inscription.

Inclusion on the World Heritage List benefits sites in a number of ways.  Most obviously, being included in the World Heritage ‘club’ brings a significant amount of prestige, particularly in regions such as Europe, Asia, and Latin America where achieving the designation is seen as the ultimate international validation. The prestige and visibility of the listing can boost tourism to the site, particularly from foreign visitors, especially if marketing programs championing its World Heritage status are undertaken.   Although the U.S. has never actively promoted tourism to its World Heritage Sites, there is growing interest in doing so, in line with the Obama Administration’s National Travel and Tourism Strategy, which seeks to encourage visits, particularly from overseas, as an economic development strategy to increase employment.

World Heritage status also enhances the ability of sites to raise funds, primarily from the private sector.  Finally, being a World Heritage Site can provide an added level of protection in the sense that the spotlight of international attention can shine on threats to the site.  There have been several occasions over the years in which sites in the U.S. thought to be well protected actually faced threats that were resolved in part through the spotlight of the World Heritage Convention.
The Great Kiva at Pueblo Bonito, Chaco Culture National Historical Park. Photograph courtesy of the National Park Service.The Great Kiva at Pueblo Bonito, Chaco Culture National Historical Park.
National Park Service

For example, at Taos Pueblo, the tribal government used the site’s World Heritage status to negotiate an agreement with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), whose approval was needed to expand the nearby municipal airport.  Under the terms of a Memorandum of Agreement between the tribe and the FAA, overflights over Pueblo lands will be minimized.  Similarly, a three-decade struggle to prohibit mining in the Flathead River valley in British Columbia was finally resolved after the World Heritage Committee authorized a mission to the joint Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park, a joint trans-boundary World Heritage Site.  The mission’s report concluded that any mining or energy development would devastate the ecology of the region and pollute the Flathead River which flows into the U.S. and forms the western boundary of Glacier National Park. Immediately after the report was issued, the Province of British Columbia and the State of Montana entered into an agreement to prohibit any mining in the Flathead area on both sides of the border.

While U.S. World Heritage Sites occasionally come under threat, World Heritage sites around the world often face very serious challenges, particularly in countries facing civil strife or economic stress.  The lack of proper management often contributes to problems facing World Heritage properties, particularly when the designation brings increases in tourism. In addition, many sites around the globe face threats ranging from poaching of wildlife, pressures from energy development or extractive industries, various types of incursions into protected areas and much more.  As part of its responsibility to promote international cooperation in helping preserve these outstanding places, the National Park Service developed a World Heritage Fellowship program providing opportunities for site managers from developing countries to travel to the U.S. for the purposes of training and exchange with counterparts at American National Parks that are World Heritage Sites. With decades of experience in managing large numbers of visitors as well as other aspects of park operations, the NPS is well placed to share lessons learned with colleagues from overseas.  Since 2009, 13 fellows from a variety of countries in Africa, Latin America, and Asia have spent on average four weeks in a U.S. National Park collaborating with NPS peers on ways to deal with the challenges of managing a World Heritage Site.

Lava flows into the sea at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. Photograph courtesy of the National Park Service. Lava flows into the sea at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park,
a World Heritage Site
National Park Service

The most recent challenge to U.S. participation in the World Heritage Convention began in late 2011 when the General Conference of UNESCO voted to admit Palestine as a member state.  U.S. law holds that if a UN body grants membership to Palestine, the U.S. must suspend payments to that organization and accordingly the U.S. State Department froze U.S. payments to UNESCO.  To date, the U.S. is in arrears in its dues, unable to pay the overall annual membership dues of approximately $80 million or the much smaller amount due to the World Heritage Fund, which administers the World Heritage global program and from which developing countries can seek assistance to help preserve their World Heritage Sites.   This has created considerable hardship both to UNESCO and to the secretariat of the World Heritage Convention, known as the World Heritage Centre, housed within UNESCO.  While the State Department is actively seeking to persuade Congress to modify the law so that the Administration could have the discretion to waive the prohibition and allow U.S. payments to resume, the success of that effort is far from certain.  In the meantime, the U.S. continues to nominate its sites, as there is no prohibition in the Convention from doing so.  Following the successful inscription of Poverty Point, an ancient mound site built over 3400 years ago by a hunter-gatherer civilization, the next U.S. nomination that the World Heritage Committee will consider is the one for the San Antonio Missions, including the early 18th century missions in the San Antonio Missions National Historical Park as well as the Alamo.

Despite the on-going issue of non-payment of U.S. dues, there is growing interest among the U.S. public in seeking global recognition for unique American places through the World Heritage program.  As World Heritage grows in stature and visibility and becomes more well-known in the U.S., that interest will likely only increase.   The NPS Office of International Affairs fields many requests on a regular basis from proponents of prospective nominations.  It is ironic that the growing U.S. interest in nominations comes at the same time as the cloud of the dues issue hangs over U.S. participation in World Heritage and all UNESCO-related activities.   The sooner this issue is resolved, the sooner the U.S. can resume its historic leadership role in the World Heritage Convention and continue inviting the world to join in recognizing the value of key American treasures that form the common heritage of humankind.