In most countries inscription on the World Heritage list is highly prized. Designation is seen as bringing honor, recognition, and tourists to a nation’s most outstanding historic and scenic sites. For this reason, many countries vie to increase the numbers of properties that are imprinted with the World Heritage brand. This has not been the case in the United States – quick – name three US properties on the world heritage list: Yellowstone, Grand Canyon, Monticello, yes, Mount Vernon actually no. To see a list of the 21 World Heritage sites in the US go here.
But perhaps the American perception of the value of World Heritage designation is changing. Let me tell you what happened earlier in June at the usually staid US/ICOMOS annual meeting in San Antonio, Texas. US/ICOMOS is one of over 100 National Committees with a formal role in the nomination and protection of World Heritage Sites and as a national committee provides technical advice to UNESCO’s on World Heritage issues. The purpose of this year’s US/ICOMOS conference was to consider the 40th anniversary of the World Heritage Convention featuring multiple scholarly presentations and behind the scene tours with the curators of the region’s heritage sites.
However, the US/ICOMOS conference dinner in celebration the 40th Anniversary of the World Heritage Convention had a different vibe. Keynote speaker, US Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar, brought a Texas crowd to it feet hooting and hollering when he announced his support for designating the San Antonio Missions as a World Heritage sites. While this might have been a little disconcerting to conference attendees and to the other candidates for World Heritage status also attending the meeting, this extra enthusiastic response might be a sign of the rising cachet of World Heritage designation in this country. Read the press release here.
According to a recent article in the George Wright Forum, from 1960 through its ratification in 1972, the United States played a leadership role in developing the Convention Concerning the Protection of World Cultural and Natural Heritage (the “World Heritage Convention”). Today this document has become one of the most widely recognized international environmental agreements in history and has been ratified by almost every nation on the globe. In the United States, however, the World Heritage Convention has come under increasing attack. During the Reagan Administration, the U.S. withdrew its support from UNESCO, the larger entity that oversees World Heritage designations. Congress also passed legislation requiring 100% owner consent to any world heritage listing, which rules out the designation of large cultural landscapes. And right now, the U.S. has again withdrawn financial support to UNESCO because of the organization’s vote to grant membership to Palestine.
Given this history, it is very heartening to see such a ground swell of interest in the idea of World Heritage and in Texas to boot! Supporters of the designation for the San Antonio Missions report that 80% of the local community is in favor of the nomination. The elected officials, the San Antonio River Authority, and most importantly the venerable San Antonio Conservation Society are all on board with idea. The Spanish ICOMOS National Committee also has offered to help with documentation requirements. Okay, so the number of fans for designating the San Antonio Missions as a World Heritage Site wouldn’t fill Long Horn Stadium, but it is a start.