World Heritage
World Heritage

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World Heritage

2.4 Types of heritage

2.4.1 Natural heritage: large and small

With 174 natural and 25 ‘mixed’ sites out of 878 (in 2009), natural heritage is rather under-represented in the portfolio of World Heritage, at least if raw data are taken as a measure. While the scale and environmental or scientific qualities of many natural sites are such that it is difficult to say whether we are comparing like with like, there are other explanations for the imbalance. The first, it will be recalled, is the relative under-representation of natural heritage specialists on international NGOs; the second, that some countries have a long tradition of national parks or reserves along with legislative frameworks for environmental conservation, sometimes enacted long before it began to be addressed as a serious global issue. In some ways it is therefore surprising that natural sites are so well represented in the USA (and Canada), though in both contexts cultural sites were certainly less prominent than in Europe. In the USA, where national parks were pioneered by a Scot, John Muir, the justifications are highly nationalistic, as the following statement shows:

For those who seek to grasp the spirit of the nation and understand the vast array of disparate elements that is America, there is no better teacher than the U.S. National Park System. This is one of the country’s most valuable inheritances, held in trust for the citizens of the United States and nurtured for enjoyment by future generations.

National Pride, Global Significance

Through the national parks, the United States preserves its natural, cultural and historic heritage and offers to the world a window on the American experience. It also acts as steward to resources invaluable to the world.

The secretary of the interior, through the National Park Service, is responsible for identifying and nominating U.S. sites to the World Heritage list. Currently, there are 20 World Heritage sites in the United States, including two sites jointly administered with Canada. Among the U.S. preserves judged important to the entire world are Yosemite, Yellowstone, the Grand Canyon, the Great Smoky Mountains and the Everglades.

In these and other wild places of North America, the U.S. National Park Service labours to carry forward naturalist John Muir’s dream, as expressed in 1901, to preserve ‘the beauty, grandeur, and all-embracing usefulness of our wild mountain forest reservations and parks, with a view to inciting the people to come and enjoy them, and get them into their hearts’.

(Bureau of International Information Programs, US Department of State, 2006)

While the political message is essentially subverted there is a strong emphasis, as one would expect, on the ‘spirit of the nation’ and preserving national identity, though quite where the Indigenous Americans (many displaced from their lands, including the national parks) fit in is not mentioned. As Harrison (2008) points out, settler colonies like the USA needed to emphasise the distance between natural and cultural heritage to promote the idea of ‘wilderness’ – a blank, apparently unoccupied country which apart from the politics would justify the historical and moral position of occupation.

The past too can be made to seem like a blank canvas, but with that said the parks are held in trust for the future and the authorities see themselves as custodians of nature on the grand scale. The wild, as Muir envisaged, is to be enjoyed by all; and there is an obligation on the National Park Service to promote his precepts. Certainly the national parks are well managed, attract large numbers and their contribution to the tourist economy in the USA is known to be substantial.

Elsewhere, for example in Asia or South America, are sites that cover vast areas, and consequently issues of protection, conservation and management which they share with cultural heritage are often more complex and, in crossing boundaries, are both highly political and genuinely transnational in scale.

The scale and ethos of natural heritage conservation in the UK may be rather different, but it does share many of these problems in microcosm, as can be appreciated from the case of the Dorset and East Devon Coast, a World Heritage site since 2001 (Figure 3). This site comprises more than 200 miles of undeveloped coastline and countryside, with cliff exposures and rock formations of international geological significance. Its status has had a number of valuable outcomes. First, it has raised awareness internationally, regionally, nationally and locally, generating enthusiasm and pride in the community, which in turn has brought together other sectors in support of initiatives.

Figure 3 Fossil at Undercliff, Lyme Regis, part of the Dorset and East Devon Coast World Heritage site. Photographed by David Noble. Photo: © David Noble Photography/Alamy.

Second, it has helped protect the site by limiting planning applications for inappropriate development. Third, it has encouraged enhanced funding to manage the site, improve transport and develop tourist potential. The spinoffs have been extensive and are thought to have contributed greatly to the local economy, mainly through the large numbers of visitors attracted to the site.

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