Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Everglades in Danger?—This Time Don’t Blame the United Nations

Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar announced he wants Everglades National Park to be re-inscribed to the List of World Heritage in Danger saying “…when we achieve restoration, we can remove the park from the list of sites that [are] in danger.”

Many people have argued over the years that being on the World Heritage List somehow puts the United Nations in charge of United States property and impinges on private property rights. I am very familiar with the World Heritage Convention, the World Heritage Committee, its Operating Guidelines, and the Rules of Procedure and I disagree with those who believe the U.S. surrenders it sovereignty and that property rights are violated. I base my conclusion on knowledge acquired while serving as a Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Interior for Fish and Wildlife and Parks and leading the U.S. Delegation to the World Heritage Committee for five years.

However, when the Clinton Administration talked the World Heritage Committee into putting both Yellowstone and the Everglades on the List of World Heritage in Danger in the early 1990s, the flames of fear and loathing against the United Nations and UNESCO, which runs the World Heritage Program, were fanned into a conflagration.

Neither park should be considered “in danger.” The List of World Heritage in Danger is a tool the World Heritage Committee uses to gain the attention of the owner of a World Heritage Site when its conservation is “threatened by serious and specific dangers.” Putting a site on the In-Danger List achieves two ends. It is designed to encourage the country in which the site is located to take action or actions necessary to ensure the site’s conservation and it makes international assistance (technical and monetary) available to the property owner for such conservation actions. A country or private owner of a World Heritage Site is under no obligation to take any action requested by the World Heritage Committee. Under the World Heritage Convention conservation only occurs through “cooperation and assistance.” If in the final analysis a property loses its Outstanding Universal Value for which it was inscribed as a World Heritage Site, the Committee may then vote to remove the site from the List of World Heritage.

The World Heritage Committee removed Everglades National Park from the List of World Heritage in Danger in 2007. Many people cried foul blaming the Bush Administration for advancing the idea of removing the site from the In-Danger List before the restoration is complete. Here are the facts. The World Heritage Committee has been monitoring Everglades for nearly two decades and they have been continuously awe struck at both the dollars spent and efforts taken by the U.S., the State of Florida, and others to restore this site. Taking action is all the Committee ever wants to see. They do not expect restoration to be complete before taking a site off the List of World Heritage in Danger, especially when the restoration of the Everglades is likely to be a 20-40 year process. The Committee expressed a desire to remove the Everglades from the In-Danger List at every meeting where I represented the U.S. from 2002 to 2006. In 2007, they had seen enough and they asked Deputy Assistant Secretary for Fish and Wildlife and Parks, Todd Willens, to make a motion to remove the site form the List of World Heritage in Danger. He did, and though the Committee usually does not vote, but seeks consensus, no member of the Committee or any one else present spoke against the motion.

The United States should not seek to re-inscribe Everglades to the List of World Heritage in Danger. Instead, Americans should be proud that the international community recognizes our significant and costly efforts to undertake the largest ecosystem restoration project the world has ever known. The restoration is far from complete and nothing should deter the ongoing commitment and efforts to restore and conserve this unique and valuable marsh land habitat. Unfortunately, some environmental groups cannot stand success. Success apparently does not sell enough memberships and does not perpetuate their power base. Too bad, because the United States does more for conservation than any other nation in the world and we should welcome the international recognition of our leadership in this area and the well-deserved pat on the back for doing the right thing for Everglades National Park and the South Florida Ecosystem.

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