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US World Heritage Program at Risk

Statue of LibertyOnce upon a time the United States was a leader in establishing the World Heritage Convention for the preservation of natural and cultural heritage. The U.S. was the first signatory in 1973.  In 1978, the US hosted the first session of the World Heritage Committee at which sites were inscribed on the World Heritage List. Today, virtually all the countries of the world have signed on, making it the most universal of international legal instruments. As of May 2013, there are 936 World Heritage Sites  in 150 countries: 21 are in the U.S. Read about the history of World Heritage in a recent article in the George Wright Forum.

In October of 2011, the United States halted payment of its dues to UNESCO, following its admission of Palestine as a member state.  Under U.S. law, the government is required to withhold funding to any international body that recognizes Palestine.  This affects our country’s ability to cooperate in scientific and technological matters, and to participate in educational and cultural opportunities with other nations. One of the most visible UNESCO benefits to the U.S. is our participation in the World Heritage program.

Efforts are underway to seek a legislative remedy that will allow the U.S. to resume making contributions to UNESCO, but time is running out.  This fall the U.S. will lose its vote in UNESCO’s General Conference, the organization’s main governing body. Once that happens continued US involvement in UNESCO will be brought into question. There are concerns that if the U.S. submits World Heritage nominations, vote-less in the main body and in arrears, they may not receive fair consideration.  At this time the U.S. has nominated one site for consideration, Poverty Point , an archeological site in northeastern Louisiana built 3,500 years ago by a hunter-gatherer culture, and two for nomination: the Buildings of Frank Lloyd Wright (10 of the master architects key buildings in 6 states), and the Franciscan Missions of San Antonio, including the Alamo, in Texas. See the Living Landscape Observers post Let’s Shout Out for World Heritage.

What’s at stake?  In San Antonio jobs are at the top of the list. In addition to the prestige of being recognized by the international community, the World Heritage label draws tourism and economic development to surrounding communities.  “San Antonio faces an incredible opportunity to achieve World Heritage Site designation for its beloved Missions, while significantly increasing economic benefits for the region,” said National Parks and Conservation Association Texas Regional Director Suzanne Dixon. “Unfortunately, that opportunity is in jeopardy as the United States is currently withholding payment of its UNESCO dues. We absolutely cannot let politics derail this for the city and our country as a whole. This designation means over 1,000 additional jobs and over $100 million in additional economic activity – a legislative remedy must be sought.”

In most parts of the world, an inscription on the World Heritage List is viewed as akin to winning an Olympic Medal or the Nobel Prize. It is in our national and economic interests to have our sites in the running and one cannot compete sitting on the sidelines.

(The author would like to thank the National Park Service and Susan Dixon from NPCA for contributing information to this article)