A Quick Guide to the World Heritage Program in the United States

Mesa Verde was one of the first two U.S. World Heritage Sites, inscribed in 1978.
Mesa Verde was one of the first two U.S. World Heritage Sites, inscribed in 1978.

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What is a World Heritage Site?

A World Heritage Site is a natural or cultural site that demonstrates influence or significance in a global context (i.e., has “Outstanding Universal Value”), and has been inscribed on the World Heritage List by the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization’s (UNESCO) World Heritage Committee.

What is meant by the term Outstanding Universal Value?

As defined by the Operational Guidelines for the Implementation of the World Heritage Convention , Outstanding Universal Value means that a site has cultural and/or natural significance which is so exceptional that it transcends national boundaries and is of importance to present and future generations of all humanity.

Who maintains the World Heritage List?

The list is maintained by the World Heritage Centre, staffed by UNESCO in Paris. The World Heritage Committee (the Committee), which makes decisions about adding sites to the World Heritage List, is made up of 21 countries, elected on a rotating basis from among the current 194 countries that have signed and ratified The World Heritage Convention. These countries are referred to as State Parties.

Are there any restrictions, rules, or regulations that apply to World Heritage Sites?

Being inscribed on the World Heritage List does not regulate or place restrictions on private property or private property owners. Direct authority over individual properties remains with the national, state, tribal, or local government or private organization that owns and manages the site. National authorities routinely report to the World Heritage Committee on issues affecting the values of the Sites.

How is a site inscribed on the World Heritage List?

A site must meet one or more of the ten World Heritage Committee selection criteria, be on a State Party's Tentative List, and go through a nomination process before being considered for inscription on the World Heritage List. A site can be proposed for inscription only by the country in which the property is located.

What is the Tentative List?

The Tentative List is an inventory of natural and cultural heritage sites within its territory which a country believes meet the selection criteria and which it intends to nominate within the next 10 years. In order for a site to be nominated to the World Heritage List, it must have been included on its country's Tentative List for at least one year before nomination.

Who chooses the sites for the U.S. Tentative List?

The Assistant Secretary of the Interior for Fish and Wildlife and Parks, with staff assistance from the National Park Service, Office of International Affairs (NPS-OIA) is responsible for identifying sites for the United States (U.S.) Tentative List and nominating sites to the World Heritage List. Only sites already designated as National Historic Landmarks (NHLs) or National Natural Landmarks (NNLs) or otherwise officially recognized as being nationally significant (such as National Parks) are eligible for the U.S. Tentative List.

Can sites be added or recommended to the U.S. Tentative List?

The Assistant Secretary can add sites to the U.S. Tentative List as part of an official process for making nominations. The Tentative List was last revised in 2017, and now includes 19 sites or groups of properties. No further revisions are planned in the near future, as this list will supply future nominations for a number of years. The NPS-OIA maintains files on other properties that might be considered for addition in the future, and anyone interested in suggesting sites should contact that office.

What are the World Heritage Committee selection criteria?

The selection criteria allow the Committee to evaluate Outstanding Universal Value of a site in order to determine if it should be inscribed on the World Heritage List. A site must meet at least one of the ten selection criteria in order to be nominated. Sites may have multiple criteria and may be mixed (both cultural and natural). The criteria are occasionally revised by the Committee.

Cultural Criteria

I. represent a masterpiece of human creative genius.

II. exhibit an important interchange of human values, over a span of time or within a cultural area of the world, on developments in architecture or technology, monumental arts, town planning, or landscape design.

III. bear a unique or at least exceptional testimony to a cultural tradition or to a civilization, which is living, or which has disappeared.

IV. be an outstanding example of a type of building, architectural or technological ensemble, or landscape, which illustrates (a) significant stage(s) in human history.

V. be an outstanding example of a traditional human settlement, land-use, or sea-use which is representative of a culture (or cultures), or human interaction with the environment especially when it has become vulnerable under the impact of irreversible change.

VI. be directly or tangibly associated with events or living traditions, with ideas, or with beliefs, with artistic and literary works of outstanding universal significance. (The Committee considers that this criterion should preferably be used in conjunction with other criteria).

Natural Criteria

VII. contain superlative natural phenomena or areas of exceptional natural beauty and aesthetic importance.

VIII. be outstanding examples representing major stages of earth's history, including the record of life, significant on-going geological processes in the development of landforms, or significant geomorphic or physiographic features.

IX. be outstanding examples representing significant on-going ecological and biological processes in the evolution and development of terrestrial, fresh water, coastal and marine ecosystems, and communities of plants and animals.

X. contain the most important and significant natural habitats for in-situ conservation of biological diversity, including those containing threatened species of outstanding universal value from the point of view of science or conservation.
  • Cultural criteria do not support nominations for associative value alone, i.e. for places associated with important people, themes or historical events.
  • Significant interactions between people and the natural environment are recognized as cultural landscapes.
  • The protection, management, authenticity, and integrity of sites are also important considerations when determining eligibility for the World Heritage List.

What is the site nomination process?

Nomination File: Assistant Secretary selects site from Tentative List;, owner prepares nomination with guidance of NPS-OIA; additional research, peer review, drafts, and public outreach prepared as needed; NPS-OIA submits nomination to World Heritage Centre for technical review; nomination reviewed by Federal Interagency Panel; U.S. submits completed nomination and World Heritage Centre sends to the appropriate Advisory Body (ies) for evaluation.

Advisory Bodies (evaluation): Nomination independently evaluated by one or both Advisory Bodies to assess whether the proposed site meets one of the ten criteria and other requirements and make a recommendation to the World Heritage Committee, including a site visit. If nomination is for cultural site, the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS) conducts the review; if a natural site, review is by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

World Heritage Committee (inscription): Committe meets once a year to consider nominated sites. Receives evaluations of the nomnation; makes final decision on the site inscription. Committee can refer or defer inscription to request changes to the nomination file from a State Party.

Who prepares a site nomination?

The property owner(s) or their representative is responsible for preparing the nomination. All owners within a site's boundaries must consent to the nomination and be willing to agree to protective measures for the property. NPS-OIA provides advice and assistance on preparing a nomination.

What is the time frame for site inscription?

Because of U.S. and international (UNESCO) requirements, the process for site inscription, from selection of the site to being inscribed on the World Heritage List, is several years at a minimum. It generally takes 1-3 years to draft a nomination. After it is submitted by the United States, the formal review process takes another 18 months.

For more information about U.S. World Heritage Sites, the Tentative List, and the nomination process visit the Office of International Affairs on the National Park Service's website.

For a more in-depth discussion of World Heritage Sites and the expectations for nomination documents, refer to the resource manual on Preparing World Heritage Nominations, a publication of the UNESCO World Heritage Centre.

Last updated: September 19, 2023