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The World Heritage Convention and the National Park Service

By Guest Observer June 28, 2013

Peter Stott wrote the following commentary as the conclusion to a series of three essays on the role of the National Park Service in the World Heritage Convention.  The essays were published in successive issues of the George Wright Forum 28:3 (2011), pp.279-290; 29:1 (2012) , pp.148-175; and 30:1 (2013) pp.18-44. This epilogue provides a strong case for the value of the United State’s (US) participation in the World Heritage Convention. It is reprinted with the permission and support of the George Wright Society.

The World Heritage Convention and the National Park Service

Epilogue: Into the next half-century

As the last of this series of essays comes to an end, it seems fitting to restate the original intention of the United States in proposing the convention. Conservation was the original goal, as first articulated by the convention’s US proponents; identification of sites with outstanding universal value was the means to that end, not the goal. The emphasis on conservation must remain the convention’s true aim and the US implementation of it. Based on the foregoing review of the Park Service’s role in the convention, the writer offers some thoughts on the US role in the convention in the next half century.

The 2011 admission of Palestine as a member state of UNESCO (and a state party to the convention) has triggered two US laws from the 1990s prohibiting the US payment of dues to UNESCO or to the World Heritage Fund. While the non-payment of dues may not affect the ability of the US to vote in the General Assembly, it would limit the effectiveness of any moral leadership the US might try to exercise. The international suggestions below assume that this state of affairs is of no long duration.

View of Yosemite National Park, a world heritage site in the United States. Photo by Dan Stern.

View of Yosemite National Park, a world heritage site in the United States. Photo by Dan Stern.

Concerning the World Heritage Committee: Since its most recent service on the com­mittee ended in 2009, the US has remained an active participant in World Heritage meetings. A fully engaged US delegation can continue to help guide the convention’s development, whether as observer or as a member of the committee. In the absence of a strong chair, or articulate members, it takes very little to prevent the committee from taking a “course of least resistance” in making its decisions, often adopting politically motivated decisions in opposition to advisory body recommendations, its Operational Guidelines, or even its own Rules of Procedure. But as this history has shown, any display of intellectual rigor or institutional memory by a committee member (or in some cases by an observer delegation) is often picked up by other members and can change the direction of discussion. The US and other delegations that care about the conservation goals and the integrity of the convention must be vigilant.

The biennial election of committee members at the General Assembly could be more effectively used to ensure that candidates are focused on conservation rather than on the national self-interest. While the US never announces in advance its voting decisions, it can, with like-minded states, announce that it will only vote for those candidates that publicly pledge to put forward no nominations of sites in their own territories during their mandates (the US itself made this pledge when it ran for election to the committee in 2005). The US could also make it clear that states which pledge to give a role to heritage experts (as required by the convention) would be favored. Both expectations were recommendations of the 2011 audit discussed above.54

World Heritage expert meetings in the United States: Over the years, many countries have sponsored expert meetings to foster exchanges on specific technical subjects. An occasional expert meeting hosted at a relevant US World Heritage site would not only be a significant contribution to the World Heritage community, it could also give US site managers and their staffs a role in, and the experience of, international meetings. Possible topics might include those the US and Canada have already expressed an interest in, at the time of the 2005 Periodic Report: how to recognize the importance of local populations residing within and/or adjacent to natural World Heritage sites; or a discussion of guidelines for evaluating visual impacts on World Heritage properties.

Concerning bilateral partnerships: In creating the Office of International Affairs in 1961, Interior Secretary Stewart Udall explicitly recognized the role that the National Park Service should play in sharing its expertise with other countries. “We must,” he said, invoking the European phrase of the moment, “establish a Common Market of conservation knowledge and endeavor.”55 Nearly a half century later, this commitment was reiterated in the final report of the National Parks Second Century Commission, the blue-ribbon panel commissioned for the upcoming National Park Service centennial in 2016.56 As the National Park Service embarks on its second half-century in international cooperation, it must continue to renew its bilateral relationships, which are mutually beneficial both to NPS and to its resource management partners in other countries.

One of the founding programs in bilateral relations was the International Short Course in the Administration of National Parks and Equivalent Reserves. “That was one tangible element of leadership,” former Assistant NPS Director for Natural Resources Mike Soukup recalled, “that was unmistakably successful. Throughout my career whenever I met with foreign Park people, they would say to me, ‘You need to put that back together. That was so important to my career . .. to my country .. . to the world, that you had that course available and funded’ … That’s the one thing we could do internationally,” Soukup said, “that would restore a healthy leadership position for the Park Service and for the nation, in the eyes of a tremendous amount of people around the world.”57

The second program that should be restarted is the cooperative program with the Peace Corps. For over a quarter of a century, between 1972 and 2000, the National Park Service had an active partnership with the Peace Corps to assist other nations in developing national parks, providing training to Peace Corps volunteers in park planning, management, and interpretation. In an era of disengagement, the program was allowed to expire in 2001. With the support of USAID, it should be renewed.

Concerning US World Heritage sites: The network of World Heritage sites in the US needs to be reinforced. Site managers attending the 1992 Santa Fe meeting have repeatedly stressed how important the meeting was to them, and how beneficial the subsequent meetings. Both Dick Ring, former superintendent of Everglades, and Dave Mihalic, former superintendent of Glacier, recalled the loss of institutional knowledge that was inherent in the movement of site managers around the park system. “The best thing about [the Santa Fe] meeting,” Mihalic said, “was the fact that all the mangers were able to get in one place, including the non-Park Service sites—the Cahokia Mounds, Monticello managers—and not just to understand things all at the same time. But it was a great way to start thinking in a bigger picture, more strategic manner.”58 “It would be enormously valuable,” Ring said, “to see some resources set aside to support the convening of the US World Heritage site managers.” These network activities, Ring added, could also reinforce the international goals of the Park Service: “It would be very easy to make sure that whenever there is a convening of US managers, that there is an invitation extended to the hemisphere or thematically to similar sites around the world to make a focus, and to invite those folks in, and help support bringing them there.”59

Concerning nomination of future World Heritage sites in the United States. Recalling the original goals of the convention, and its emphasis on outstanding universal value and conservation, the US must decide its own course, regardless of the decisions taken by other countries, concerning the composition of the List of World Heritage sites in the United States. The US should seriously consider what a potentially finite number of World Heritage sites in the US would look like. The list of natural World Heritage sites in the US seems well on its way toward fully representing natural biogeographic provinces, but what cultural heritage sites uniquely represent US history and pre-history? (If natural sites represent important biogeographic provinces, what analogous cultural themes should be represented by cultural properties?) Will it simply be a more rarified list of thousands of national historic landmarks? Or does “outstanding universal value” have a more substantive meaning? This is not a process that lends itself to volunteer, grassroots proposals. A rigorous discussion and analysis should identify defining historical themes, and only then examine how those themes might be best represented. The US already has management and legal provisions that set the country apart from the way all others manage World Heritage nominations; policies that adhere to a unified and substantive interpretation of outstanding universal value is a logical extension of those management requirements. But there is no inherent urgency to the inscription of World Heritage sites: a good candidate will always be eligible, whether its nomination comes one year, twenty years, or fifty years from now.

Endnotes

54. Recommendations 11 and 12, “Final Report of the Audit of the Global Strategy and the PACT Initiative,” (2011), UNESCO Working Document WHC-11/18.GA/INF.8.

55. Stewart L. Udall, “Nature Islands for the World,” keynote address to the First World Conference on National Parks, in First World Conference on National Parks, Alexander B. Adams, ed. (Washington, D.C.: National Park Service, 1962), pp. 1-10.

56. National Parks Second Century Commission. Advancing the National Park Idea: Na­tional Parks Second Century Commission Report (Washington, DC: National Parks Con­servation Association, 2009), p. 24.

57. Mike Soukup interview, 27 July 2009.

58. Dave Mihalic interview, 18 February 2010.

59. Dick Ring interview, 10 July 2009.

Peter Stott was formerly (1996-2006) a staff member of the World Heritage Committee’s secretariat, the World Heritage Centre at UNESCO in Paris. Prior to his time at the Centre, between 1992 and 1995, he attended the World Heritage Committee sessions and wrote a nightly e-mail “blog” (before the term existed), as an observer affiliated with ICOMOS, He is currently a preservation planner at the Massachusetts Historical Commission.

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