UNESCO sites to be saved and savored

The Serengeti plains in Tanzania. The Serengeti plains in Tanzania.
By Kari Bodnarchuk
Globe Correspondent / May 16, 2010

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A pristine section of land stretching from northern Montana into British Columbia, Canada, contains stunning mountain ranges, prairies, tundra, and lakes. It has endangered trout, the highest concentration of grizzly bears in the United States, and water quality that ranks among the best in the world. Gold exploration, coal-bed methane drilling, or construction of a coal mine might have irreversibly damaged this fragile environment.

This land, known as the Waterton Glacier International Peace Park, is on the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization’s (UNESCO) World Heritage List, a designation currently held by 890 natural and cultural sites worldwide because of their “outstanding universal value.’’ In February, British Columbia and Montana signed an agreement stating that no mining will be allowed in the region.

“All of the values that make this park of international significance would have been threatened,’’ says Stephen Morris, chief of the Office of International Affairs at the US National Park Service. “The World Heritage designation of Waterton Glacier definitely played a role in helping to protect the park from this mining development.’’

Sites like China’s Great Wall, Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, Venice, Peru’s Machu Picchu, and Indonesia’s Borobudur, the largest Buddhist monument in the world, have earned World Heritage status for their enduring uniqueness and value as natural or cultural treasures. Achieving such status helps countries preserve, protect, and promote these legacies of global importance.

“We have expanded the concept of heritage in modern times,’’ says Francesco Bandarin, director of UNESCO’s World Heritage Centre in Paris. “It originally included the monuments of Greece, Egypt, Rome, and other ancient civilizations. Now it includes cities, institutions, itineraries, and essentially anything that communities value.’’

Even important routes are recognized as legacies, such as the ancient Spice Route and the Silk Road, networks of land and maritime trade routes that linked Europe and the Far East for thousands of years. Towns, ports, churches, and monuments with connections to these routes have secured places on the list.

To get on the list, a site must meet at least one of 10 criteria. It might be “a masterpiece of human creative genius,’’ such as Monticello, Thomas Jefferson’s neoclassical home in Virginia, which he designed himself, or an example of an architectural style that illustrates a significant stage in human history, like the Acropolis in Athens. Or it might be an outstanding example of a stage in the planet’s history, such as Gros Morne National Park in Newfoundland and Labrador, which also meets the World Heritage criterion for containing “superlative natural phenomena or areas of exceptional beauty and aesthetic importance.’’

“The thing that’s quite remarkable in Gros Morne is that those features of the park that contribute to the amazing and dramatic beauty, whether it’s a mountain or deeply carved glacial valley, are the same ones that have great scientific significance,’’ says Anne Marceau, an interpretive specialist at the park. “They’re each a product of this incredible theory of plate tectonics, the idea that continents exist on different plates that intersect and overlap.’’

“There have been development issues,’’ says Marceau, referring to the threat of installing power lines in the park, “but because it’s a World Heritage site, people rallied and were more likely to say, Hey, no, that’s not appropriate.’’

The event that sparked strong international interest in protecting a cultural heritage site dates to the 1950s, when floodwaters from the proposed Aswan High Dam in Egypt would have engulfed the magnificent Abu Simbel temples on the banks of the Nile. The Egyptian government and more than 50 countries banded together to save the ancient treasures, donating $80 million to survey the site and to move the temples, one block of stone at a time, to higher ground.

Visit Abu Simbel today and you’ll find two wonderfully preserved Egyptian temples with colossal statues inside and out, and dozens of inner chambers that contain ancient wall carvings and hieroglyphics celebrating one of Egypt’s greatest pharaohs, Ramses II. All would have disappeared underwater without such global conservation efforts.

“The idea of conserving vast areas of wild land originated in the United States, going back to the great John Muir in the late 19th century and continuing with the efforts of Roosevelt in the early 1900s,’’ says Bandarin. But it took off in the mid-1960s, he adds, when the United States proposed a World Heritage Trust to encourage countries to protect their outstanding natural and scenic areas.

The two conservation movements came together in 1972 with the establishment of the World Heritage Convention (officially called the Convention Concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage), an international treaty that is currently ratified by 187 countries. The Bahamas became the final country in the Americas to join when it signed the treaty last month.

Since its inception, “the World Heritage List has expanded galactically,’’ says Bandarin, who will become UNESCO’s assistant director-general for culture in July. “The originators of the treaty hoped the list would eventually include 100 sites, but today there are 890: Six hundred eighty-nine cultural, 176 natural, and 25 mixed.’’

The first 12 sites that made the list in 1978 included Yellowstone National Park, located in Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho, which has the world’s largest number of geysers (over 300) and more than half the planet’s known geothermal features (over 10,000); Ecuador’s Galápagos Islands, where unique animals contributed to Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution; and Poland’s Wieliczka Salt Mine, which chronicles mining practices from the 13th to 20th centuries, and has underground lakes and more than 186 miles of art, altars, and statues carved into the rock salt.

Each year, the 21-member World Heritage Committee selects new sites for the list. The committee also reviews the List of World Heritage in Danger.

“The point of the danger list is to draw attention to sites that are threatened and thereby bring in needed support, resources, and expertise,’’ says Gina Doubleday, spokeswoman for the World Heritage Centre. “Many threatened sites, such as those in Democratic Republic of Congo [which has five, more than any country] are areas of armed conflict. In these situations, the countries are in no position to protect their heritage.

“It’s not punishment,’’ adds Bandarin, “but it indicates that there is a problem. We recommend ways to fix problems, and offer technical and financial assistance.’’

Thirty-one sites hold a spot on the danger list, including the Galápagos, the Belize Barrier Reef Reserve System, and Virunga National Park in the Congo, which has a chain of active volcanoes, endangered mountain gorillas, and “the greatest diversity of habitats of any park in Africa,’’ according to UNESCO.

To date, only two sites have been taken off the World Heritage list: the Arabian Oryx Sanctuary in Oman and the Dresden Elbe Valley in Germany.

“The Arabian Oryx Sanctuary was a vast site of desert land — 25,000 square kilometers [15,500 square miles] — that hosted endangered species, including a gazelle-like animal, and one day the government decided to reduce 90 percent of the size of the park,’’ explains Bandarin. “They found oil somewhere.’’

“In the Dresden case, they decided to build a highway bridge through the city, even after we told them to build a tunnel, instead,’’ adds Bandarin. “But these are extreme cases.’’

The United States has 20 World Heritage sites and 14 others have been nominated, including the Petrified Forest National Park in Arizona, a group of Franciscan missions in Texas, and three Baptist churches in Alabama that would collectively be considered one site.

Kari Bodnarchuk can be reached at

If You Go

More info on US sites

US World Heritage sites

Mesa Verde National Park



Yellowstone N.P. National Park

Wyoming, Montana, Idaho


Everglades N.P. National Park



Grand Canyon N.P. National Park



Independence Hall



Kluane/Wrangell-St. Elias/Glacier Bay/Tatshenshini Alsek

Alaska/British Columbia


Redwood N.P. National Park



Mammoth Cave N.P. National Park



Olympic N.P. National Park



Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site



La Foraleza Fortaleza and San Juan National Historic Site

Puerto Rico


Great Smoky Mountains N.P. National Park



Statue of Liberty

New York


Chaco Culture National Historic Park

New Mexico


Hawaii Volcanoes N.P. National Park

Big Island, Hawaii


Monticello and the University of Virginia in



Taos Pueblo

New Mexico


Carlsbad Caverns N.P. National Park

New Mexico


Waterton Glacier International Peace Park



Yosemite N.P.