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World Heritage Site Designation: A Threat to U.S. Sovereignty? 

12-09-2015 17:35

The Statue of Liberty. Yosemite. Independence Hall. The Everglades. Taos Pueblo. Monticello. What do these places have in common? At first glance, perhaps, very little. In their very diversity, however, lies a clue to what links them. Together, these cultural and natural sites constitute, with many others around the world, a common heritage whose disappearance would be an irreparable loss to each and every one of us.

In recognition of their significance, they have been included among more than 500 properties worldwide that currently comprise the World Heritage List, administered by the World Heritage Committee of UNESCO. Unfortunately, however, future listings of U.S. sites on the World Heritage List would be endangered under two bills being considered by Congress.

On the House side, the "American Land Sovereignty Protection Act" (H.R. 901), sponsored by Alaska Representative Young, was passed by the House of Representatives last October by a vote of 236-191. The American Land Sovereignty Protection Act amends the National Historic Preservation Act Amendments of 1980 to prohibit the Secretary of the

Interior from nominating any federal lands for inclusion on the World Heritage List unless

  1. the Secretary publishes a finding that commercially viable uses of nominated lands and lands within ten miles of them will not be adversely affected by such inclusion;
  2. the Secretary has reported to the Congress on the lands` natural resources and the impact that listing would have on existing and future uses of the lands; and
  3. such nomination is specifically authorized by a law.
The Senate companion piece, S. 691, the "Public Land Management Participation Act of 1997," introduced by Alaska Senator Murkowski and cosponsored by Idaho Senator Craig, has been referred to the Committee on Energy and Natural Resources. Like H.R. 901, the Senate bill would require any new World Heritage Site to be authorized by Congress. In addition, it establishes procedures for the review of World Heritage Site designations by the public and federal, state, and local governments, and requires either the Secretary of Agriculture or the Secretary of the Interior to object to the inclusion of any property on the list unless the Secretary has submitted to the Speaker and the President of the Senate a report describing the necessity for including the property on the list.

These two bills threaten our participation in international heritage protection efforts. Still, for those of us who are busy putting out fires on the preservation home front, it`s easy to be blasé about the fate of the United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization, better known as UNESCO. If national preservation players such as the National Park Service and the National Trust at times appear to be removed from the local preservation fray, UNESCO might as well be on another planet. This is not an organization that tends to engender warm and fuzzy feelings. With UNESCO`s World Heritage List coming under attack in the halls of Congress, it makes sense to take a closer look at the role of the World Heritage Committee and the implications of World Heritage Site designation.

First, some background. In 1972 "The Convention Concerning the Protection of the World Culture and Natural Heritage" as it is officially known, was passed by the General Conference of UNESCO. It established two main instruments to protect world heritage: The World Heritage List and the World Heritage Fund. (Interestingly, the idea of a list of internationally significant world heritage sites was first proposed by the United States, which was the first signatory to the convention.) To date, 149 countries have adhered to the convention, making it the most universal framework for the protection of cultural and natural heritage.

The World Heritage List is an attempt to define the world`s heritage by drawing up a list of sites whose outstanding values should be preserved for all humanity and to ensure their protection through a closer cooperation among nations. By signing the Convention, each country pledges to conserve heritage within its own boundaries and under its own laws. It is interesting to note that this pledge is in effect regardless as to whether a site has been designated as a World Heritage Site. When a site on the World Heritage List is seriously endangered, it may be added to the list of World Heritage in Danger which entitles it to special attention and international assistance.

Currently, two of the twenty U.S. World Heritage Sites are on the in danger list: Yellowstone National Park, for the threat posed by mining operations outside the park, and Everglades National Park, for damage to the park ecosystem due to pollution, changes in water levels, and nearby urban development.

The danger list seems to be especially threatening to some members of Congress. H.R. 901 would require the Secretary of the Interior to object to the inclusion of any property in the United States on the danger list unless the Secretary

  1. has reported to the Congress on the necessity for such inclusion, the natural resources associated with the property, and the impact such inclusion would have on existing and future uses of such property; and
  2. is specifically authorized to assent to the inclusion by a joint resolution of the Congress enacted after the report is submitted.
The effect of these requirements would be to delay or even pre-empt the opportunity to bring to world attention the danger which a World Heritage Site is facing, and to prevent a timely dialogue on how the United States can best protect the most important of America`s cultural treasures.

The World Heritage Convention also established a World Heritage Fund for the conservation of sites on the list. These monies are spent on projects such as studies to determine and fight the causes of deterioration, conservation plans, and training of local specialists in preservation techniques.

So far, so good. But what about the supposed threats to United States sovereignty? On this, the convention is quite clear: its goals are to be fulfilled while "fully respecting the sovereignty of the States on whose territory the [heritage site] is situated, and without prejudice to property right provided by national legislation." The convention further states that the "duty of ensuring the identification, protection, conservation, presentation, and transmission to future generations of the cultural and natural heritage...belongs primarily to that State." In other words, World Heritage Sites are not protected because they are designated, they are designated because they are protected.

Additions to the World Heritage List are nominated by individual national committees (in the case of the United States, recommendations are made by US/ICOMOS), and the inclusion of a property on the World Heritage List requires the consent of the state and property owner concerned.

The convention does direct parties to the convention "to endeavor, in so far as possible, and as appropriate for each country" to work to preserve its heritage. So, what weapon does the World Heritage Conference have up its sleeve to assure compliance, if not total global domination? "If a country is not fulfilling its obligations under the convention, it risks having its sites deleted from the World Heritage List." This is hardly the sort of language that should make statesmen quake in their shoes.

Threats to United States sovereignty by the World Heritage Committee are non-existent. It bears repeating that whatever responsibilities the United States has to protect heritage sites arise not from the actual designation of a specific site, but from our own laws. Despite the lack of real teeth in the World Heritage Site program, the National Park Service has gone to great lengths to ensure that private property owners are immune even from the international community`s moral censure.

Reviewing the list of United States entries on the World Heritage List, it quickly becomes apparent that the vast majority of the sites on the list are NPS sites. Only a couple (Pueblo de Taos, Monticello) are privately owned. This is no accident. One of the conditions of designation of U.S. sites imposed by the National Historic Preservation Act is owner consent.

Thus, a couple of years ago, when the United States committee nominated the historic core of Savannah, Georgia-- certainly a site deserving of international recognition--the nomination was only for the street plan and public spaces of the city, not the actual buildings. The World Heritage Committee, however, deemed that this was not sufficient. As significant as James Oglethorpe`s plan for Savannah may be, the city would not retain its historic integrity without its remarkable architecture.

In the same vein, the inclusion of Yellowstone and Everglades on the World Heritage in danger list cannot require the National Park Service to manage the parks in any manner contrary to the laws that created the parks or govern their operation. The danger list is an invaluable tool to identify threats to places that have already been recognized as irreplaceable assets of the people of the United States. The point is that at no time have anyone`s property rights been threatened by the United States` participation in the World Heritage Sites program. In the words of William Chandler of the National Parks and Conservation Association, "No international group has any authority to make decisions about land use in the United States...The World Heritage Convention [is] about international cooperation, not world domination."

The National Trust has similarly harsh words. According to Ed Norton, Vice President, Law and Public Policy, H.R. 901 and S.691 are unnecessary, inappropriate, and prohibitively burdensome, and would virtually eliminate the United States` participation in the World Heritage Convention. "Congress should not create a legislative framework that may have the effect of indulging the baseless phobias of isolationists and those who would undermine recognition and public awareness of America`s contributions to world civilization."

A coda: I recently returned from a trip to the Azores. During my visit, I spent a number of days in the town of Angra do Heroismo on the island of Terceira. The Azores lie at the meeting place of the North American and European Plates, making them particularly vulnerable to seismic activity. In 1980, disaster struck: the city (a large village, really) was struck by a powerful earthquake which reduced much of its exquisite Portuguese Baroque architecture to rubble. Following the tragedy, the people of Angra do Heroismo (the reference to heroism so richly deserved) determined that the historic character of their community was worth preserving. Shortly thereafter, they were rewarded for their efforts by receiving the designation of World Heritage Site.

Today, a visitor would never know of the calamity were it not for the few remaining prefab shelters on the edge of town. The buildings gleam under a fresh coat of whitewash, and underfoot, the black and white mosaic sidewalks feature the World Heritage Site logo. Clearly, the people of Angra are house proud, and embrace their World Heritage Site status. Participation in the program has brought Angra international recognition and helped its residents rebuild not just their buildings, but also their sense of who they are.

So why are some members of our Congress bent on undermining the World Heritage Program?

Publication Date: Spring 1998


Author(s):Anthony Veerkamp

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