Thirty-four new sites are being proposed for addition to the existing 20 U.N. World Heritage sites in the United States. These proposed sites are from a list of more than 70 sites suggested for listing. The decision for listing is expected before the end of 2007.
Among the few people who know about this list, some are elated, and some are furious. The vast majority of people - including elected officials - have no idea how, or by whom, the list was formulated, why it is being proposed, or what the significance of listing may be.
The list is required by the 1972 World Heritage Treaty, ratified by the United States. Each member nation is required to update its "inventory" of possible sites for listing every two years. UNESCO then designates the sites it chooses. The last two sites added to UNESCO's list were Carlsbad Caverns, and Glacier National Park, in 1995. In both instances, local elected officials had no idea that the sites were even being considered, until the announcement was made by UNESCO.
Significance of listing
The purpose of the World Heritage Treaty is to identify cultural and natural sites worthy of international recognition - and protection. There are now 830 properties listed in 138 of the 183 nations that are a party to the treaty. All are subject to extraordinary protection measures. Treaty Article 6 (1) says:
"Whilst fully respecting the sovereignty of the States on whose territory the cultural and natural heritage mentioned in Articles 1 and 2 is situated, and without prejudice to property right provided by national legislation, the States Parties to this Convention recognize that such heritage constitutes a world heritage for whose protection it is the duty of the international community as a whole to co-operate."
Ratification of the treaty obligates the United States to recognize that once a site is listed as a World Heritage Site, "... that such heritage constitutes a world heritage for whose protection it is the duty of the international community as a whole to co-operate." Essentially, once a site is listed, a state (country) is obligated "to do all it can" to provide "protection, conservation, presentation and transmission to future generations."
If the state (country) is not doing what the World Heritage Committee thinks it should do to protect a listed site, it may declare the site to be a "World Heritage Site in Danger." Yellowstone National Park, designated a World Heritage Site in 1978, provides an excellent example of the significance of this designation.
In 1987, the New World Mine, located on privately owned property nearly three miles from Yellowstone, began expanding development of an old mine that had been in operation since 1875. The operators expected to mine $750 million in gold from the project. The company spent nearly three years and $37-million in the development of an Environmental Impact Statement, reviewed by 20 state and federal agencies.
After meeting every objection raised by the agencies, and opposition by environmental organizations, and within months of the deadline for a final decision by the federal government, the World Heritage Committee intervened. At the request of a coalition of environmental organizations, and an Assistant Secretary in the Department of Interior, UNESCO sent a delegation to evaluate the World Heritage Site.
Bernd von Droste, Director of the World Heritage Centre, concluded that:
"It is important to note that Article 1 of the World Heritage Convention obliges the State Party to protect, conserve, present and transmit to future generations World Heritage sites for which they are responsible. This obligation extends beyond the boundary of the site and Article 5(A) recommends that State Parties integrate the protection of sites into comprehensive planning programmes. Thus, if proposed developments will damage the integrity of Yellowstone National Park, the State Party has a responsibility to act beyond the National Park boundary."
The mining permit was not granted. New plans were launched to limit visitors' use of the park, and to reduce the use of snowmobiles. Nearly 18 million acres surrounding the park were subjected to more stringent regulations.
Despite outcries from the public, local and state elected officials, and even Congressmen, the treaty-required protections prevailed. Re-read Article 6 (1) above, in light of this Yellowstone experience. National sovereignty doesn't seem to get much respect, nor does private property, nor the legislatively authorized permitting process, when confronted by the enforcers of the World Heritage Treaty. Know too, that the Everglades National Park is a "World Heritage Site in Danger." Know too, that any World Heritage Site can be listed as a World Heritage Site in Danger, anytime a federal agency decides to request that UNESCO do so.
Whenever private citizens or elected officials become obstacles to the agenda advanced by environmental organizations and agency officials, the World Heritage Treaty is readily available to remove the obstacles and crush the hopes, dreams, and Constitutional guarantees that are meaningless to UNESCO and the World Heritage Committee.
Henry Lamb is the executive vice president of the Environmental Conservation Organization (ECO), and chairman of Sovereignty International.