World Heritage Convention and U.S. National Parks

CRS Report for Congress
Received through the CRS Web
World Heritage Convention
and U.S. National Parks
Lois McHugh
Analyst in International Relations
Foreign Affairs, Defense, and Trade Division
On March 6, 2001, Congressman Don Young introduced H.R. 883, the American
Land Sovereignty Act. H.R. 883 requires congressional approval to add any lands
owned by the United States to the World Heritage List, a UNESCO-administered list
established by the 1972 World Heritage Convention. Two years ago, on May 20, 1999,
the House passed (by voice vote) an identical bill also numbered H.R. 883, but the
legislation did not pass in the Senate. Sponsors of that bill expressed concern that adding
a U.S. site to the U.N. list, which is currently done under executive authority, might not
protect the rights of private property owners or the states. The Clinton Administration
and opponents of the bill argued that the designation has no effect on property rights and
does not provide the United Nations with any legal authority over U.S. territory. In
related legislation, P.L. 106-429, in which H.R. 5526, the Foreign Operations, Export
Financing, and Related Programs appropriations act for 2001 was referenced, contained
language prohibiting funding from this bill for the United Nations World Heritage Fund.
The FY2000 contribution to the Fund was $450,000. The World Heritage Fund
provides technical assistance to countries requesting help in protecting World Heritage
sites. This paper describes the operation of the UNESCO Convention and will be
updated periodically. This legislation would also affect U.S. participation in the
UNESCO Man and the Biosphere Program, which includes some of the same sites. For
information on that program, see CRS Report RS20220, Biosphere Reserves and the
U.S. MAB Program.
There are currently 690 natural and cultural sites in 122 countries listed on the World
Heritage List established under the World Heritage Convention. Twenty U.S. sites are
listed, including Yellowstone and Grand Canyon National Parks, Independence Hall, and
the Statue of Liberty. The World Heritage in Danger list currently has 30 sites in 24
countries, including Yellowstone National Park and Everglades National Park.
Yellowstone National Park was listed on the sites in danger list in 1995 and the Everglades
was listed in 1993. The 1980 National Historic Preservation Act establishes the Interior
Department as the administrator and coordinator of U.S. activities under the Convention.
H.R. 883, the American Land Sovereignty Act, would place conditions on Interior’s

Congressional Research Service The Library of Congress

authority to nominate new sites and require specific congressional authorization for new
About the Convention
The Convention Concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural
Heritage, popularly known as the World Heritage Convention, was adopted by the General
Conference of the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization
(UNESCO) in 1972. The United States initiated and led the development of the treaty and
was the first nation to ratify it in 1973. Currently, 162 nations are parties to the
Convention. The Convention’s purpose is to identify and list worldwide natural and
cultural sites and monuments considered to be of such exceptional interest and such
universal value that their protection is the responsibility of all mankind. Each country
adopting the Convention pledges to protect listed sites and monuments within its borders
and refrain from activities which harm World Heritage sites in other countries. The
Convention states in Article 4 that each party to it “recognizes that the duty of ensuring
the identification, protection, conservation, presentation and transmission to future
generations of the cultural and natural heritage .... situated on its territory, belongs1
primarily to that state.” The international community agrees to help protect them through
the World Heritage Committee and Fund.
World Heritage Committee and Fund
The World Heritage Committee, composed of 21 specialists from member nations
elected for 6-year terms, administers the Convention. (The United States was mostly
recently a member of the Committee for a term ending October 1999). The Committee
has two principal tasks. First, it recognizes the sites nominated by member states to be
included on the World Heritage List, based on the criteria established by the Committee.
Decisions on additions to the List are generally made by consensus. UNESCO provides
administrative assistance to the Committee but has no role in its decisions. The Committee
monitors the sites and when a site is seriously endangered, it may be put on a List of World
Heritage in Danger after consultation with the country in which the site is located. In
1992, the Committee adopted a plan to improve its operations, including an increased
focus on monitoring conditions at existing sites rather than adding new sites to the List.
The Committee also administers the World Heritage Fund, which provides technical
and financial aid to countries requesting assistance. Assistance can include such support
as expert studies, training, and equipment for protection. World Heritage Fund technical
assistance must be requested by a member country in an agreement with the Committee,
which sets conditions for the assistance. The World Heritage Fund receives income from
several sources. Member states pay dues equal to 1% of their UNESCO contribution.
The United States is not a member of UNESCO and therefore does not contribute as a
member. The Fund also receives voluntary contributions from governments, donations
from institutions, individuals, and from national or international promotional activities.
The United States contributed $450,000 voluntarily to this program in FY2000, an amount
appropriated in the Foreign Operations Appropriation. A similar contribution was

1 Convention concerning the protection of the world cultural and natural heritage. 27 UST 37.

requested for FY2001. This contribution was prohibited by P.L. 106-429. Virtually no
other U.S. money was contributed to this program.
U.S. Participation
The National Park Service is the primary U.S. contact for World Heritage sites in the
United States. The National Historic Preservation Act Amendment of 1980 (P.L. 96-515)
charges the Department of Interior with coordinating and directing U.S. activities under
the Convention, in cooperation with the Departments of State, Commerce, and
Agriculture, the Smithsonian Institution, and the Advisory Council on Historic
Preservation. The National Park Service administers all the U.S. sites with funds
appropriated by Congress, except for several that are owned by states, a foundation, and
an Indian tribe.
American Land Sovereignty Protection Act. H.R. 883 was introduced by
Representative Don Young on March 6, 2001, and referred to the Committee on
Resources. It has 30 cosponsors. The legislation amends the National Historic
Preservation Act of 1980 (P.L. 96-515) to require a determination by the Interior
Department that the designation of a new site will not adversely affect private land within
ten miles of the site, a report to Congress on the impact of the designation on existing and
future uses of the land and surrounding private land, and specific authorization by
Congress for new World Heritage site designations. The bill also terminates and prohibits
unauthorized designation of biosphere reserves under the UNESCO Man and the
Biosphere Program.
Foreign Operations, Export Financing, and Related Appropriations Act,

2001. (P.L. 106-429, as passed by Congress, enacted by reference in H.R. 5526.)

Section 580 of this bill states that none of the funds appropriated or made available by this
Act may be provided for the U.S. contribution to the United Nations World Heritage
Fund. P.L. 106-429 was signed by the President on November 6, 2000.
Issues for Congress
Impact of the Convention on U.S. Sovereignty
Although the debate on the American Land Sovereignty Protection bill was often
couched in terms which included U.N. influence over U.S. parks and monuments,
supporters of the American Land Sovereignty Protection Act were primarily concerned
that a lack of a congressional role in designating the sites and a lack of congressional
oversight of implementation of the act undermines the congressional role under the
Constitution to make rules governing land belonging to the United States. As the House
Resources Committee web site on the legislation stated: “By using these international
designations, the Executive Branch is able to guide domestic land use policies without

consulting Congress.”2 Supporters express concern that even though there may be no
international or U.N. direct control of U.S. sites, federal agency managers may take into
account the international rules of the World Heritage program in making land use
decisions, or use the designation to undermine local land use decisions, often without the
advice or even the knowledge of local authorities or property owners.
The World Heritage Convention does not give the United Nations authority over
U.S. sites. The Department of State has testified that under the terms of the World
Heritage Convention, management and sovereignty over the sites remain with the country
where the site is located. Supporters of the World Heritage system note that member
countries nominate sites for the World Heritage List voluntarily and agree to develop laws
and procedures to protect them using their own constitutional procedures. Most of the
U.S. sites named have already been accorded protection in law as national monuments or
parks. In commenting on the bill, the Clinton Administration stated that the designation
does not give the United Nations the authority to affect land management decisions within
the United States and has not been utilized to exclude Congress from land management
decisions. The Department of State noted that the Convention itself has no role or
authority beyond listing sites and offering technical advice and assistance. Supporters of
the convention assert that World Heritage status has been the impetus behind closer
cooperation between federal agencies and state and local authorities.
Impact of Placement on the World Heritage List
Inclusion on the World Heritage List increases knowledge and interest in sites
throughout the world. Many countries use the World Heritage designation to increase
tourism to site areas. Designation also brings international attention and support to
protect endangered sites. In 1993, the World Heritage Committee supported the United
States in protecting Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve by publicizing U.S. concerns
about a Canadian open pit mine near the Bay and reminding the Canadian government of
its obligations under the Convention to protect the site. In 1996, international concern,
including concern raised by U.S. citizens, was instrumental in changing the plans of a
Polish company to build a shopping center near Auschwitz Concentration Camp in Poland,
a World Heritage Site. In March of 2000, Mexico dropped plans to develop a salt plant
on the shores of a gray whale breeding ground in a protected Mexican area designated as
a World Heritage Site.
Supporters of legislation restricting U.S. World Heritage participation express
concern about the impact of the designation on private property near the sites. They
suggest that agreeing to manage the site in accordance with the international convention
may have an impact on the use of private land nearby, or may even be an indirect way of
complying with treaties which the Congress has not approved. They claim that advocacy
groups use federal regulations and international land use designations to frustrate the
public land management decision-making process. The Interior Department has testified,

2 U.S. Congress. House. Committee on Resources. [http://www. resources/106th cong/

on the other hand, that the nomination procedure includes open public meetings and
congressional notification on sites being considered.
Yellowstone National Park
In June 1995, the U.S. Department of the Interior notified the World Heritage
Committee that Yellowstone was in danger and requested an on-site visit. In a follow up
letter, the Department of the Interior noted actions which the United States was taking to
address the situation. A team organized by the World Heritage Center reviewed actual and
potential threats to the park. In December 1995, based on this visit and consultations with
U.S. government officials, the World Heritage Committee placed Yellowstone on the List
of World Heritage in Danger, citing threats posed by plans for a gold mine just over 1 mile
from the Park, the introduction of non-native fish into Yellowstone Lake, and activities to
eliminate brucellosis from Park bison herds. The World Heritage Committee noted that
any response to the threat was a U.S. domestic decision and asked that the U.S.
government keep the committee informed of actions taken by the United States and to
assess what more must be done in order to remove Yellowstone from the endangered list.
Both the non native fish and the Park bison herds are the subject of ongoing federal,
state, and local discussions. The gold mine issue has been resolved. Congress appropriated
funds to compensate the mine owners for not developing it. The non-native fish problem
is ultimately unresolvable, but Park authorities are working to minimize the number of non
native fish in Yellowstone lake. The Administration will continue to report annually to the
World Heritage Committee on both Yellowstone and Everglades National Parks until
they are removed from the endangered list. The World Heritage Committee will continue
to list both parks on the World Heritage in Danger List in consultation with the United
States. The December meeting of the World Heritage Committee will be the next
opportunity for the United States to report on actions taken to eliminate the danger to the
parks, or to discuss changes to their designation. It is too early to know what the Bush
Administration position will be on this topic.