- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 15, 2007

Federal officials are reviewing dozens of parks and historical landmarks, including Mount Vernon and the Virginia state Capitol, to determine which can be nominated as U.N. World Heritage Sites.

It’s an honor, however, that some say is not without political undertones.

“Many countries think it’s a boost for tourism. In the U.S., it’s an honorific designation like the Nobel Prize. It’s global recognition for your site,” said Stephen Morris, chief of the Office of International Affairs of the National Park Service. But he conceded the designation has also “been controversial in certain places” in the U.S. because of its use as a tool by environmentalists.

Steven Borell, director of the Alaska Miners Association, said the designation has been used to block nearby economic development.

“It’s an international approach that radical environmentalists have used to block mining in Australia, Russia and the U.S.,” Mr. Borell said.

The mining association protested new designations in letters to Congress last month, citing the U.S. case that involved Yellowstone National Park and the situation near Australia’s Kakadu National Park.

“In both cases, international nongovernment groups, working with officials of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) … meddled in domestic land-use and mining policies,” the miners association said.

“There is every reason to believe that the same meddling would occur when development is proposed on federal, state, native or other private lands adjacent to other World Heritage sites. The likely targets will be public infrastructure, agriculture, tourism, energy, mining, transportation, etc.” the association said.

Although the list of nominations to the National Park Service contains 36 sites, officials expect that after it is vetted to ensure owners and stakeholders approve of the designations, only 16 to 20 will make the final cut.

“Anybody can submit an application, as long as the owners agree, then we do this review, and those that actually make it will be formally submitted to UNESCO. Then a year after we submit it, we can begin nominating places from the list,” Mr. Morris said.

The listings are viewed by some Europeans as a “Good Housekeeping seal of approval,” but are suspect in the U.S., particularly in the West, where the U.N. is not a popular entity, said a senior House Republican aide.

Yellowstone was listed in the 1970s, but it was not until the mid-1990s that a private company wanted to mine on its nearby property.

“Environmentalists could not block it under U.S. law, so they lobbied [then-Interior Secretary Bruce] Babbitt, and he invited the U.N. committee to come into the U.S. with their scientists. They said the park will be in peril if this happens. Then the World Heritage Committee voted in December 1995 in Berlin that it was a World Heritage Site in danger,” the aide said.

“Conservatives here say this is a case where soft law becomes hard law because they used the committee as a world court, and that is why people freak out. It can have consequences.”

House Republicans called those actions “mission creep” and accused the U.N. committee of “eco-imperialism.”

According to UNESCO’s Web site, “World Heritage sites belong to all the peoples of the world, irrespective of the territory on which they are located.”

Formerly, the list contained 70 properties in more than 30 states, including the oil-rich Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. That site will be removed when the new list is submitted. The aide called the new list “infinitely better.”

The entire process will take as long as 10 years, Mr. Morris said. The “tentative list” will be submitted to the World Heritage Committee in January 2008, and the first nomination will move forward in January 2009.

National parks that are expected to make the listing over the next 10 years include Dayton Aviation National Historical Park and Hopewell Cultural National Historic Park in Ohio, the Pipestone National Monument in Minnesota, Petrified Forest National Park in Arizona, White Sands National Monument in New Mexico and San Antonio Missions National Historic Park in Texas.

There are now 830 designated sites worldwide on the list; 22 U.S. designations include the Statue of Liberty, Independence Hall, Monticello, and Yellowstone and Grand Canyon national parks.

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