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from Positions on Property, Vol. 4, No. 1 (Nov. 1998)

U.N. World Heritage Sites
National Park Service Seeks Additional Designations

World Heritage Sites are designated under a treaty to which the United States is a party, entitled the “Convention for the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage,” which was adopted at the General Conference of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization in Paris on November 16, 1972. Although the United States no longer participates in UNESCO(1), the U.S. Department of State in conjunction with the National Park Service and other agencies, administers the program. Sites continue to be added to the 22 already-designated parks, buildings and other sites in the United States.
Both “cultural” and “natural” Heritage are protected under the treaty. Although national sovereignty is an issue of concern in all designations, the experience of private property owners indicates that it is the resource designations which pose the potentially serious detriment to their private property rights.
Under Article 2 of the Convention, “natural heritage” is defined:

Natural heritage comprises natural features consisting of physical and biological formations or groups of such formations which are of outstanding universal value from the aesthetic or scientific point of view;
geological and physiographical formations and precisely delineated areas which constitute the habitat of threatened species and plants of outstanding universal value from the point of view of science or conservation;
natural sites or precisely delineated natural areas of outstanding universal value from the point of view of science, conservation or natural beauty.(2)

The “State Parties” (nations) to the Convention pledged, among other activities, to take appropriate “legal” measures necessary to protect this heritage. In practice in the U.S., this has meant that the National Park Service has stated that natural areas can only be designated if they are owned by the government. Even the Adirondack region of northern New York, which is included in a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, and which is half owned by the State of New York and the other half rigidly controlled by a state zoning agency, does not qualify for World Heritage status in the eyes of U.S. government officials.
But private property rights can be greatly affected by the designation of a World Heritage Site nearby. The most notorious feature of the Convention affecting private property rights is where the World Heritage Committee is to maintain a “List of World Heritage in Danger.”(3) Although the Convention calls for scientific research and studies to draw up the list, and although the list is for the purpose of assisting the nation where the endangered site is located with the costs where “major operations are necessary” because of “accelerated deterioration,” destruction by “earthquakes,” the “threat of armed conflict,” and the like, the extreme environmentalists who control land policy in the Clinton Administration successfully used the clause to execute an international scheme to declare Yellowstone Park, a “World Heritage Site in Danger” and bring plans for a mine outside the park to a stop.(4)
The Yellowstone debacle was carried out in spite of its clear conflict with carefully worded language in the Convention, most notably in Article 6:

“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 rights provided by national legislation...”(5)

Because of the Yellowstone affair, which is thoroughly documented with all of the paper exchanges so beloved by bureaucrats, reasonable people can no longer dismiss as speculative the grave concerns about the threats to constitutional rights posed by the World Heritage Sites.
The World Heritage Sites and their recognized and incipient “buffer zones” provide a large arena which needs active defense of private property rights, local home rule and natural sovereignty by dedicated citizens living in the affected region or state. A list published with this article gives each site by state.
In addition, the National Park Service has inadvertently revealed a roster of 70 tentative future World Heritage Sites, which is also published with this article. The official description of each site is available from the Property Rights Foundation. The relevant documents and status of the “progress” of designation of sites involving natural resource areas demand scrutiny and monitoring by citizens, local publicity in the potentially affected areas, and public hearings by local and state government.

(1) In 1984, the U.S. withdrew from UNESCO because of its stance against freedom of speech, its financial mismanagement, and other important matters.
(2) Article 2, “Convention for the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage,” UNESCO, 1972
(3) Article 11, Convention, ibid.
(4) A reliable and rather complete account of the Yellowstone affair is in chapter 7, “The Yellowstone Controversy: A Question of Sovereignty” Global Greens, by James M. Sheehan (Capital Research Center, Washington, D.C., 1998)
Competitive Enterprise Institute, Washington, D.C., published an account called “The Yellowstone Affair” in May 1997, by Professor Jeremy Rabkin.
(5) Article 6, Convention, ibid. It should be noted that the UNESCO document is mistaken and the U.S. was wrong to ratify the language where “property rights” are “provided by national legislation,” as these rights are inherent to each person and guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution. But the idea is there and the Yellowstone affair violated this as well as other features of the Convention even if the whole scenario was manipulated by U.S.-based environmentalists.

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