The World Heritage Committee (WHC), meeting in Quebec this week, on Monday added 8 natural sites and 19 cultural sites to UNESCO’s World Heritage List of cultural, natural, and mixed properties that have “outstanding universal value.” This brings the total to 905 sites listed: 697 cultural, 182 natural, and 26 mixed properties, in 145 states parties. It’s a good time to take stock and reflect on just how appreciated the three World Heritage List sites in Appalachia are, not just in the region, not just in America, but worldwide.
World Heritage sites are acknowledged to belong to all the peoples of the world, irrespective of the territory on which they are located. Here in America the WHC has identified 20 such sites (including two sites jointly administered with Canada), starting in 1978 with the Mesa Verde National Park, most administered by the National Park Service.
The inscription of these 20 American properties as World Heritage Sites formally recognizes the respect they hold in the world community. They are linked today through the contemporary successor to the ancient list of the Seven Wonders of the World – the World Heritage List.
The three Appalachian sites that make the list are: Mammoth Cave National Park (1981), Great Smoky Mountains National Park (1983), and Monticello and the University of Virginia in Charlottesville (1987).
The mere mention of the above names on the World Heritage list evokes our nation’s heritage and the universal human values we stand for. Thomas Jefferson’s designs for Monticello and the University of Virginia are recognized worldwide as exceptional examples of Neoclassical architecture. The earth’s longest underground passageways at Mammoth Cave, and the astonishing variety of flora and fauna (more than 3,500 plant species) found in the Great Smokies, amaze millions of visitors annually.
But making the WHC list is more than just a pat on the back and a plaque on the wall. Through the World Heritage Fund, the WHC can provide countries requesting assistance with studies, advice, training, and equipment in order to eliminate problems, restore damaged areas, and set up safeguards.
The Secretary of the Interior, through the National Park Service, is responsible for identifying and nominating U.S. sites to the list. Proposed U.S. sites must be either federal property, such as national parks, or sites already designated as national historic landmarks or national natural landmarks. Properties not owned by the Federal Government are nominated only if their owners wish to do so and pledge to protect their properties in perpetuity.
The WHC program was founded with the Convention Concerning the Protection of World Cultural and Natural Heritage, which was adopted by the General Conference of UNESCO on November 16, 1972. Since then, 185 states have ratified the convention.