Property Rights Foundation of America Position Brief

New Wave of UNESCO World Heritage Sites Proposed
International “Recognition” for 36 U.S. Sites Threatens Private Property Rights

This spring, the National Park Service announced that 36 sites in the United States have been proposed for recognition as UNESCO World Heritage Sites, adding to the 20 such sites that already are designated in this country. With locations in 25 states and one U.S. territory, the proposed cultural or natural sites range from Mount Vernon in Virginia to Frank Lloyd Wright buildings in several states to the Okefenokee Swamp National Wildlife Refuge in Georgia. Designation of a number of the sites was attempted in 1998, but dropped. The U.S. had withdrawn from UNESCO (the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) in 1984, but U.S. participation has been restored for many years. The current round of applications stems from the U.S. status as a party to the “Convention for the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage,” the treaty adopted by UNESCO in 1972.

The designation of World Heritage Sites is controversial because the existence of an official site has been used by environmentalists to stop the productive use of land in the nearby region outside the site under the guise that this would impinge on the integrity of the site itself. During the Clinton Administration, environmentalists successfully used the existing World Heritage Site status of Yellowstone National Park to block a new mine a few miles away. The environmentalists couldn’t find any way to block the mine under U.S. law, so the method that they used was to lobby then-Secretary of Interior Bruce Babbitt to contact UNESCO, which sent scientists to the U.S. to investigate the supposed threat. As a result, in December 1995 the World Heritage Committee voted in Berlin that Yellowstone was a “World Heritage Site in Danger,” which was used by the U.S. government to stop the mine.

Some World Heritage Sites pose a threat to private property rights because radical preservationists have focused efforts on protecting the region, especially to restore it to wilderness. Cultural sites may present as much of a threat to private property rights as sites focused on natural resources, although cultural sites have not been recognized as a problem in the past. For instance, the Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor, although a World Heritage Site, has not precipitated any publicly disclosed infringements on activities in the harbor region, but, on the other hand, the proposed World Heritage Site designation of the historic 250-acre hill-top estate and Italianate villa of Frederic E. Church known as Olana at Greenport on the east side of the Hudson River in upstate New York might be exploited in the future as a tool to stop the use of land, considering the activity of many wealthy preservation organizations and government agencies that are bent on restoring the Hudson shorelands to a natural state. Church was the premier artist of the nineteenth century Hudson River School, which celebrated the river’s majestic natural beauty; his monumental paintings could provide inspiration for a movement to stop the “desecration” on the Hudson in the advent that new development were to be proposed.

If any future cultural site is designated in an area where a non-profit organization is dedicated to protecting the milieu during which its architecture arose, the organization could try to summon UNESCO to intervene in the zoning and building application process, considering that each state has laws analogous to the National Environmental Policy Act, known as “mini-NEPAs,” that require evaluation of the impact of a project on recognized historic or cultural sites.

Considering that the U.S. protects so many thousands of cultural sites and millions of acres of land under government ownership and other means of preservation, it is ironic that additional UNESCO sites in the U.S. are being proposed. For instance, Olana is already listed on the National Historic Register. In the U.S., the National Park Service has stated that a proposed natural site must be owned by government; all sites must meet strict criteria in order to be nominated. It is unreasonable to designate more World Heritage Sites, now that designation has been used as a sledgehammer rather than to assist the nation with the costs “where major operations are necessary” because of “accelerated deterioration,” destruction by “earthquake,” and like factors enumerated in the convention.

The 36 World Heritage Site applications will be considered by the Office of International Affairs of the Park Service for inclusion in a draft tentative list by the end of the summer. For those concerned about the applications, it is important to comment at the initial draft stage and to contact representatives in Congress. After further review by the U.S. National Commission for UNESCO, the draft tentative list will be published in the Federal Register, inviting formal public comments. However, often it is hard to be heard once an official draft document has been promulgated. Finally, the U.S. Secretary of Interior will select those sites that will be submitted to the UNESCO World Heritage Centre in Paris by February 1, 2008.

Applicants to U.S. World Heritage Site Tentative List
Proposed Sited by State/Territory

Alabama...................................... Dexter Avenue King Memorial Church
Alabama...................................... Civil Rights Churches of Birmingham
Alabama...................................... Moundville Site
American Samoa......................... Fagatele Bay National Marine Sanctuary
Arizona....................................... Petrified Forest National Park
Arizona, California, Illinois,
New York, Oklahoma,
Pennsylvania, & Wisconsin..........
Frank Lloyd Wright Buildings
California..................................... Gamble House
Colorado..................................... Chimney Rock Archeological Area
Georgia....................................... Central of Georgia Railroad,
Savannah Shops & Terminal Facility
Georgia....................................... Historic Center of Savannah
Georgia....................................... Okefenokee Swamp National Wildlife Refuge
Hawaii......................................... Papahanaumokuakea National Monument
Indiana........................................ Historic New Harmony
Louisiana..................................... Poverty Point State Historic Site
Maine, New Hampshire,
New York, & Kentucky..............
Shaker Villages of the United States
Massachusetts............................. Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary
Michigan..................................... Cranbrook Educational Community
Minnesota................................... Pipestone National Monument
Missouri & Illinois....................... French Creole Properties of the Mid-Mississippi Valley
New Mexico............................... Blackwater Draw Locality No. 1
New Mexico............................... White Sands National Monument
New York.................................. Olana (home of Frederic Church)
Ohio............................................ Dayton Aviation Sites
Ohio............................................ John Rankin House & John Parker House,
Underground Railroad sites
Ohio............................................ Ohio Hopewell Ceremonial Earthworks
Ohio............................................ Serpent Mound and Sunwatch Site
Oregon........................................ Columbia River Highway
Pennsylvania................................ Eastern State Penitentiary
Pennsylvania................................ Meadowcroft Rock Shelter
Pennsylvania................................ Historic Moravian Bethlehem
Rhode Island............................... Gilded Age Newport
Rhode Island............................... Colonial Newport
Texas.......................................... Old Spanish Missions of San Antonio
Virginia........................................ Mount Vernon
Virginia........................................ Virginia State Capitol
Virginia........................................ Thomas Jefferson’s Poplar Forest

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© 2007 Carol W. LaGrasse
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