US/ICOMOS and IUCN/US provide Briefing on US World Heritage Tentative List Process

US/ICOMOS Report on the Experts Briefing and Seminar on the
US World Heritage Tentative List Process
National Geographic Society
September 12, 2006, Washington, DC

Sponsored by US/ICOMOS and IUCN/US

John Waugh, IUCN US Program Coordinator,
Patricia O’Donnell, US/ICOMOS,

Introduction & Background

The US Department of the Interior on behalf of the United States government has announced plans to create a new US Tentative List for nominations to the World Heritage List under the World Heritage Convention, to replace the World Heritage Indicative List of 1982. The United States has not proposed a new site for listing to the World Heritage Convention since 1994, this despite the fact that the USA was a driving force in the creation of the World Heritage Convention through the leadership of Russell Train, the “godfather of the World Heritage movement.” The United States was the first signatory to the World Heritage Convention. Since 1978, when the list was first opened, 138 countries have listed 644 cultural sites, 162 natural sites, and 24 mixed sites. In the US, there are eight cultural sites, twelve natural sites, and no mixed sites.

The new Tentative List is intended to identify candidates for up to twenty new US World Heritage nominations during the coming ten years. This presents a historic opportunity to enhance conservation and preservation in the United States.

The new list will be selected from among Applications submitted by property owners or their representatives. The Application period is open until April 1, 2007. Subsequently, it is expected that a minimum of 20 sites will be selected (10 Cultural and 10 Natural), by the Department of the Interior. These will comprise the new U.S. Tentative List. There is no current plan to reopen nominations until the sites on the new tentative list have all been proposed to the World Heritage Committee although it is within the authority of the Department to reopen the list.

Because of the narrow window for the submittal of Applications for inclusion on the US Tentative List and the significance of renewed commitment by the United States to the World Heritage Convention, the organizers, the technical bodies responsible for advising the World Heritage Committee on nominations to the World Heritage List, decided to reach out to the US conservation and historic preservation communities to apprise them of the opportunity. The seminar was convened in order to inform, facilitate and empower participants to make recommendations to the US tentative list. It was not intended to promote individual sites but to gain an understanding of the process, gather ideas and chart a way forward for this list and into the future.

Outstanding Universal Value

The preamble to the World Heritage Convention stipulates that the convention establish “an effective system of collective protection of the cultural and natural heritage of outstanding universal value, organized on a permanent basis and in accordance with modern scientific methods…”

Article 1 identifies “cultural heritage” as:

Monuments: architectural works, works of monumental sculpture and painting, elements or structures of an archaeological nature, inscriptions, cave dwellings and combinations of features, which are of outstanding universal value from the point of view of history, art or science;

Groups of buildings: groups of separate or connected buildings which, because of their architecture, their homogeneity or their place in the landscape, are of outstanding universal value from the point of view of history, art or science;

Sites: works of man or the combined works of nature and man, and areas including archaeological sites which are of outstanding universal value from the historical, aesthetic, ethnological or anthropological point of view.

Article 2 defines “natural heritage” as:

Natural features consisting of physical and biological formations or groups of such formations, which are of outstanding universal value from the aesthetic or scientific point of view;

Geological and physiographical formations and precisely delineated areas which constitute the habitat of threatened species of animals and plants of outstanding universal value from the point of view of science or conservation;

Natural sites or precisely delineated natural areas of outstanding universal value from the point of view of science, conservation or natural beauty.

The concept of Outstanding Universal Value was widely drawn to allow for evolution over time.  Paragraph five of Article 11 of the Convention stipulates that the “[World Heritage] Committee shall define the criteria on the basis of which a property belonging to the cultural or natural heritage may be included” in the World Heritage list. .This Committee, the governing body of the Convention, is therefore the final arbiter for interpretation of Outstanding Universal Value reflected in the World Heritage criteria. The evolution of interpretation of Outstanding Universal Value is guided by the Committee, and is documented in the Operational Guidelines for the Implementation of the World Heritage Convention, which is periodically revised to reflect this evolutionary process.

Seeking greater clarity on the application of the concept, The World Heritage Committee called for a special meeting of experts on the concept of outstanding universal value as used for the implementation of the World Heritage Convention. The report of the April 2005 expert consultation in Kazan, Russia, provided guidance on the application of Outstanding Universal Values as the basis for the inscription of World Heritage Sites.  The experts recommended that World Heritage Centre cooperate with the Advisory Bodies (ICOMOS and IUCN) to review past Committee decisions, to define a case-law approach to the application of the concept of outstanding universal value through the World Heritage criteria, and to set up a searchable database of past decisions of the World Heritage Committee concerning nominations.

The tools to assess Outstanding Universal Value therefore include the corpus of past committee decisions, ICOMOS and IUCN thematic and regional studies of potential candidate sites, and statements of significance for existing sites.

The present Operational Guidelines stipulate that nominations include:

An indication of the World Heritage criteria (see Box 1) under which the property is proposed, together with a clearly stated argument for the use of each criterion.

A proposed Statement of Outstanding Universal Value that makes clear why the property is considered to merit inscription on the World Heritage List

A comparative analysis of the property in relation to similar properties, whether or not on the World Heritage List, both at the national and international levels, explaining the importance of the nominated property in its national and international context.

Statements demonstrating how the property satisfies the conditions of integrity and/or authenticity in the Guidelines (paras 78-95).

Box 1:  Criteria for Inscription

Nominated properties shall…:

(i)  represent a masterpiece of human creative genius;

(ii)  exhibit an important interchange of human values, over a span of time or within a cultural area of the world, on developments in architecture or technology, monumental arts, town-planning or landscape design;

(iii)  bear a unique or at least exceptional testimony to a cultural tradition or to a civilization which is living or which has disappeared;

(iv)  be an outstanding example of a type of building, architectural or technological ensemble or landscape which illustrates (a) significant stage(s) in human history;

(v)  be an outstanding example of a traditional human settlement, land-use, or sea-use which is representative of a culture (or cultures), or human interaction with the environment especially when it has become vulnerable under the impact of irreversible change;

(vi) be directly or tangibly associated with events or living traditions, with ideas, or with beliefs, with artistic and literary works of outstanding universal significance. (The Committee considers that this criterion should preferably be used in conjunction with other criteria) ;

(vii)  contain superlative natural phenomena or areas of exceptional natural beauty and aesthetic importance;

(viii) be outstanding examples representing major stages of earth’s history, including the record of life, significant on-going geological processes in the development of landforms, or significant geomorphic or physiographic features;

(ix)  be outstanding examples representing significant ongoing ecological and biological processes in the evolution and development of terrestrial, fresh water, coastal and marine ecosystems and communities of plants and animals;

(x)  contain the most important and significant natural habitats for in-situ conservation of biological diversity, including those containing threatened species of outstanding universal value from the point of view of science or conservation.

Source:  Operational Guidelines for the Implementation of the

World Heritage Convention, WHC.05/2, 2 Feb 2005

The Application for the US Tentative List does not require the full explication of Outstanding Universal Value, which is a part of official nomination to the World Heritage Committee, but sufficient documentation is needed to present a case for the nomination based on preliminary analysis.  The Operating Guidelines are essential reading for any World Heritage site proponent.  Proponents are strongly urged to consult with the Advisory Bodies (ICOMOS and IUCN) as well as the Office of International Affairs of the US National Park Service for further guidance.

Recent Trends in World Heritage Inscription

For a property to be considered worthy of the World Heritage List, it must embody values that transcend national boundaries and truly be of global importance for all of humanity. World Heritage meetings have highlighted the varying understandings of values including statements on authenticity (1994), intangible aspects (2003), merging of cultural and natural criteria (2004), and site setting and buffer zones (2005).

A look at the global distribution of World Heritage sites reveals a disproportionate amount of sites in Europe, although there is a fairly good distribution of natural sites worldwide. The types of sites nominated for World Heritage have changed over time. Early listings were dominated by archeological sites, prehistory, pyramids, core historic cities and elitist architecture. Between 1978 and the 1990s, many terrestrial natural areas sites such as the Galapagos were listed. In general, living and traditional cultures and natural diversity such as ecological zones and particular habitats are underrepresented.

The last US inscriptions were the Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park and Carlsbad Caverns National Parks in 1995. This transboundary example (US-Canada) is part of a newer trend in the World Heritage Convention as are mixed sites and extensions to existing sites.  Trends within the existing World Heritage listing process include noting Heritage at risk and the relisting of sites under different categories, or as mixed sites. For example, Uluru – Kata Tjuta was first listed as a natural site and then listed as a mixed site to include both the lifeways of aboriginal people and intangible values.

Another trend is toward larger sites with buffer zones. Buffer zones are now required in site management planning. The trend toward looking beyond the boundaries of the core site may be desirable in some cases.  There are as yet no comprehensive rules and regulations on buffer zones although the 2005 Xi’an Declaration of ICOMOS is relevant.

A continuing concern within the World Heritage process is in previously underrepresented areas. Of the newer sites, those listed as cultural landscapes are more apt to include evolved continuing landscapes or living places, modern sites, and agricultural sites. Industrial, desert, polar, coastal/marine and small island sites are still underrepresented Sites of universal significance are not necessarily visually pleasing, and the emphasis on beauty in earlier listing is giving way to a more complex application of criteria.

Commentators on this presentation noted that it is difficult to build consensus around controversial places, and political issues must be taken into account in achieving a successful listing. People should look to properties with the greatest consensus first; they are easier to nominate. Controversial places in the US should also be discussed as a topic for further analysis in the decade leading to the next tentative list.  It was also proposed that the NPS do more to build public awareness of the World Heritage Convention, US inscribed properties and heritage tourism value.

Striking the correct balance between diversity, representivity, and Outstanding Universal Value is an important consideration in World Heritage inscription. An evolving area of interpretation of the Convention involves the use of superlatives. Inappropriate emphasis on superlatives as correlative to outstanding universal value may  lead to an erroneous conclusion of worldwide value.  The assessment of outstanding universal value must take place in the context of cultural diversity.  However, complete representivity of the world’s cultural and natural heritage in a distributed sample is inconsistent with the concept of Outstanding Universal Value.

The Process for Creating new United States Tentative List

The new tentative list is an important element in a broader strategy of renewed engagement of the US government in the World Heritage Convention. The International Affairs Office of the US National Park Service (NPS) is the office responsible for managing the World Heritage Convention, including service as the focal point for the US government with the Secretariat for the Convention, the World Heritage Centre of UNESCO in Paris.

The 830 sites now inscribed have established precedents. The last US tentative list was formulated n 1982; it was one of first to be created and is, perhaps, the oldest unrevised list. The 1982 “indicative” list was not tied directly to the nomination process, but was essentially an expert opinion developed inside of NPS without a public process.

In its new approach the government is responding to the requests made by the World Heritage Committee and to some extent following the model of the recently completed Canadian tentative list, which is a short  list proposed nominations that appear quite likely to be actually submitted. . The short-term goal for the US is to develop the tentative list with strong public participation. NPS is working through technical bodies like the George Wright Society and engaging in stakeholder dialogue through meetings such as this seminar to mobilize the American public to contribute to  a dialogue about America’s contributions to the World Heritage. The goal is to list up to twenty sites in the coming ten years (with a maximum of two sites proposed per year, one of which the World Heritage Committee has determined must be a natural site).

National significance is a key prerequisite for a US site – if it’s not nationally recognized, it cannot  be considered for World Heritage under US law. The tentative list can address pending properties, but national designation must at least be in process or a property  does not stand to be included. . Chances of success are higher, however, if the site is already designated as nationally significant. The primary mechanisms for designation of national significance are the National Natural Landmarks program, the National Historic Landmarks program, and federal protected areas designated as nationally significant by Congress and the President.

The process of submitting applications for placement of properties on the US tentative list relies on interested owners to apply using a form produced by the NPS. The data on the form will attempt to demonstrate that the proposed site meets legal and technical requirements of the US World Heritage program and the World Heritage Committee.

After the closing date (April 1, 2007) there will be opportunities for public comment on the draft list. The list will be accompanied by an explanation of how it was prepared.  The Application review will consider whether or not the application is supported by the site owners/managing agencies, whether the site appears to meet the World Heritage Convention criteria on “Outstanding Universal Value,” as judged in accordance to the existing body of knowledge, including comparative or contextual studies of similar existing sites. Non-NPS comments will be incorporated and professional reviews will be undertaken, the nature of which will not be fully defined until it is known what Applications for the US Tentative List have been submitted.  The ultimate decision on which sites to include will be made by the Secretary of Interior, in consultation with the NPS.

Destination Stewardship and the World Heritage

The National Geographic Society, the host of the Seminar, has engaged in dialogue with the American public on protected areas since the formation of the US National Park Service in 1916, believing that communication about and support for protected areas are central to National Geographic’s mission. In addition to supporting protected areas and the concept of World Heritage, a theme that the Society has embraced is “geotourism”, a way of unifying nature and culture, overcoming an unsustainable and inappropriate divide. Geotourism is a holistic approach to tourism that sustains or enhances the geographical character for the place visited — its environment, culture, aesthetics, heritage, and the well-being of its residents. It incorporates intangible elements, including music and cuisine, local crafts, living history, arts, and the well being of local residents. Geotourism is a virtuous circle where place-based tourism benefits the community and instills a motive to protect the resources. Honduras, Norway, Romania, Cook Islands, the US state of Arizona and the state of Sonora in Mexico have signed a geotourism charter, acknowledging that tourism divorced from the host place and culture lack identity and can be undersold.

Recently, the NGS created an Index of Destination Stewardship, first used in Traveler in 2004 in an assessment of parks in North America. Based on consumer assessments of six criteria (environment, cultural/social impact, aesthetics, built heritage, tourism management, and general outlook), the results placed Gwaii Haanas in British Columbia and the Apostle Islands at the top; and the Everglades and Smoky Mountains at the bottom.

For 2006, World Heritage Sites were evaluated by a combined ranking for both the site and region/context of the site. Poorly rated sites included the Galapagos of Ecuador, Angkor and Siem Reap of Cambodia. Good sites included the Western Fjords of Norway and Évora, Portugal.

There is a large variety in the type of World Heritage sites in the world, according to NGS’ analysis, but this variety is not represented in the US. The USA lacks inscribed urban historic districts and heritage cities, despite the fact that places like Charleston, Savannah, Cape May, the French Quarter of New Orleans, St. Augustine, Annapolis are found in the US. The reason for this situation is the National Historic Preservation Act stipulation that no non-federal property may be nominated for inclusion on the World Heritage list unless 100% of the owners within the boundaries of the nominated property concur in writing and pledge to protect their properties in perpetuity.

The US Experience in the World Heritage Convention and Prospects for the Future

The US has been a leader in the World Heritage Convention throughout its history, including getting the Convention ratified in 1973, and served as chair of the World Heritage Committee (the governing body) twice. The US returned to the Committee as a member in 2005. Although the US withdrew from UNESCO under President Reagan, it remained a party to the World Heritage convention. Now President Bush has led the return of the US to UNESCO.

This is a transition period for the World Heritage Convention. In the past the Convention functioned primarily as a designating body, with most of the activity revolving around the listing process. The process is evolving into a discussion of ideas about supporting the conservation of existing sites. But there are gaps. And there are geopolitical issues. The US is ready and willing to take a leadership role. but must exercise restraint in inscribing US sites. The US under-representation must be balanced against respect for global representation issues. Both a thematic balance and a geographic balance is desired particularly in light of the World Heritage Global Strategy for a Balanced, Representative & Credible World Heritage List.

There are several goals that the US has set for itself in the process of reengaging:

Improved thematic and geographic representation of sites, including those nominated by the USA

Strict adherence to universal values and importance to all humanity

Preservation of state sovereignty through cooperation, building upon the President’s Cooperative Conservation initiative. Cooperation is important because if the World Heritage values are not shared at all levels, preservation will not be possible.

Improved efficiency in Convention meetings; it is rare for a meeting to finish its agenda. Time must be managed through consensus and use of a clock.

The US believes in a principled decision making process. Sites need to have Outstanding Universal Value, a management plan, and legal protection. These are safeguards. If you look at the endangered site list, you will see a high correlation to deficiencies in these safeguards.

There is also a need to recognize and reward state party effectiveness. There are several commitments regarding serving on the World Heritage Committee that should be made: including 4 year terms rather than 6 years, and abstention from nominations while on the WH Committee. The abstention may be contentious but the appearance of conflict of interest is real.  The US itself has been exercising restraint in withholding nomination for 11 years. Now the tentative list needs revision. The sixty-nine sites on the old indicative list will be replaced by a minimum of twenty serious proposals for a balance of cultural and natural on the new tentative list.

The Canadian Experience in revising the Canadian Tentative List and the Notion of Outstanding Universal Value

Canada’s new tentative list met the requirements of the 2005 World Heritage operational guidelines. The filters used included requirements that the site meet one of the criteria for Outstanding Universal Value, that it meet the tests of authenticity and integrity, and that it have adequate protection and management (the latter being a very contentious concept).

Like the original American indicative list, the first Canadian list was an internal exercise conducted in the 1980s. Under the new tentative list, the goals were different:

Finalists on the tentative list had strong potential to meet World Heritage criteria for inscription the first time around, as the cost of reapplication is very high. This includes a high probability of a positive assessment from ICOMOS/IUCN, as the external reviews are very important

Support of stakeholders was critical.

Realistic numbers were used. The target was ten sites; the final list includes eleven.

The many varying expectations had to be managed in a credible and transparent process

Within the government the process required approval through a Government Minister; a Minister’s Advisory Committee was created to be a buffer between bureaucracies, to provide independent advice and to direct research. Parks Canada prepared materials and carried out the various steps of the process.

First, to guide the process, two independent Canadian experts were hired, one for culture and one for nature. They performed a desktop study, reviewing 140 old applications, addressing gaps and considering the directives given by the World Heritage committee. They also promoted public awareness about how the World Heritage process works.  Their goal was to raise awareness and identify around 30 qualified nominations.

In the next phase, in the winter of 2003, meetings were held with provincial governments, national aboriginal organizations, and major international/national NGOs. Documents were circulated requesting comments, on the basis of which a confidential short list of 18 sites was produced.

In the succeeding phase, local stakeholders, key national groups, federal bodies, etc. were consulted using the consultation document, the Convention and Operational Guidelines, and the World Heritage Convention governing processes. Many worthy suggestions were made, including some ideas of major importance for a next round of Tentative List preparation. A large “parking lot” for other ideas was created.

The Minister’s Advisory Committee then again met and finally recommended 11 sites, accepted by the Minister without modifications. The government will assign a coach or mentor to custodians of properties from knowledgeable staff to assist in preparing the actual nominations.

In the future, Canada would like to have more active IUCN and ICOMOS participation. US ICOMOS is stronger than Canadian ICOMOS. They may need to work together since two potential sites involve the US: a rock art site with a viewscape on the US side of a mountain and the Klondike Skagway to Dawson Trail, viewed with distinct differences by Native people and people of European ancestry.

Conclusion and Next Steps

This meeting aspired to inform and engage experts in the US Tentative List process, not  to produce a consensus. However, the discussion was rich in addressing both immediate and longer term issues.  The following are highlights from the rapporteur’s summary.

In the short term, the key challenge is to prepare a tentative list with properties that are already nationally recognized (e.g., a National Historic or Natural Landmark, National Park, National Monument, etc.) The property must have a number of attributes in addition to national recognition, including Outstanding Universal Value as defined by the World Heritage criteria, integrity and authenticity, and owner commitment to both inscription and development of protective mechanisms.

Some resources exist to assist.  For example, the ICOMOS 2005 Gap Study looked at three frameworks: typological, chronological/regional, and thematic. Results show overrepresentation of Europe, historical towns, and religious sites (especially from Christianity), and high-design architecture. In general, cultural diversity is underrepresented as are lived in places.  For the short term, participants recommended some additional assistance in the form of analysis of gaps in coverage by key themes to the extent possible, and also analysis of the eligibility of sites according to the specific US requirements.  For the six-month window, there is need for a help desk for stakeholders trying to provide input into the Tentative List process; this could possibly be achieved using the Internet.

For the longer term, participants discussed the importance of acquiring outside expert advice (e.g., from the Native American community), to help analyze Outstanding Universal Value and system gaps. The 20 current US listed properties, 12 natural and 8 cultural, are not representative of the breadth of both cultural and natural properties that may have Outstanding Universal Value. Participants encouraged NPS to continue to reach out to outside experts such as professional societies for expertise.  Available baseline documentation and studies are incomplete. There is a clear demand for a detailed gap analysis and comparative studies for the United States, in order to establish the comparative context so important for ascertaining the uniqueness and outstanding universal value of a potential nomination in a global context.

Contributors felt that a national network was needed to support the World Heritage that could be sustained over time, with the resources to help with nominations, including expert consultations.  This could help to inform and mobilize the constituency for conservation and preservation.   Several of the participants expressed the need for IUCN and ICOMOS to play leadership roles.  These organizations, as technical evaluators of nominations, must be strictly neutral with regard to the substance of what would go on a country’s tentative list. IUCN and ICOMOS could support a network and catalyze work to develop a longer term strategy for advising the government on World Heritage listings, without necessarily having to endorse specific recommendations from this process.  Appropriate caveats will have to be made explicit throughout the process.

Judging by the questions raised, extensive study will be required over the long term to address policies concerning buffer zones as well as the “viewscapes” now in the operational guidelines.  Both have the potential to become significant sources of careful analysis and both have the potential for controversy.

Longer-term consideration of what a complete World Heritage list for the United States would contain invites us to give deeper consideration not only to quantitative gaps, but also the intangible values reflected in the diversity and breadth of American landscape and heritage. Major gaps remain in the World Heritage List in the USA and globally that it will only be possible to address over the long term as our understanding and appreciation deepens. Some examples include:


Nomadic cultural heritage

Designed Landscapes

Biodiversity hotspots

Agricultural landscapes (e.g., what is comparable to Mexico’s Agave landscape in the US?)

Evolved Continuing landscapes such as heritage areas

Linear corridors such as heritage trails

Invention and industry

Heritage Cities and Towns

Modern heritage

Mixed sites with both natural and cultural values

The National Park Service can best fulfill the leadership requirement for the future if it is supported by stakeholders.  These productive discussions did give suggestions toward an ongoing process.  A final recommendation was to identify some case studies to be purposefully used to create a national dialogue and help to address how to determine global significance in challenging contexts such as cultural landscapes.  Case studies that expand our understanding and appreciation of what a World Heritage Site could be were called for, and the Appalachian Trail was put forth as an example among other properties.

Appreciation is extended to presenters, Paul Hoffman, Stephen Morris, Christina Cameron, James Charlton, Patricia O’Donnell and John Waugh as well as to all who attended and participated.


Annex 1: Useful Links to Websites with Charters, Declarations, Articles, and Other Documents relating to World Heritage

National Park Service Office of International Affairs: World Heritage Sites

UNESCO World Heritage Centre

George Wright Society World Heritage Tentative List Page

International Council on Monuments & Sites (ICOMOS)

ICOMOS World Heritage


US/ICOMOS and World Heritage

IUCN Resources for Developing a Tentative List of U.S. Sites for Inscription in the World Heritage List

IUCN World Heritage

National Geographic Society Center for Sustainable Destinations

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