United States or United Nations? Who controls America's treasures?

By Elizabeth McGeehan
web posted July 5, 1999

What do the Statue of Liberty, Independence Hall, Jefferson's Monticello and Yellowstone National Park have in common? Each of these national treasures is regulated according to the dictates of foreign bureaucrats rather than according to the will of the American people.

That's because each of these sites has been designated as a United Nations (U.N.) World Heritage Site. A U.N. World Heritage Site is an internationally protected landmark of cultural, historical or natural significance that the national government promises the U.N. it will protect.1 With the signing of the 1972 World Heritage Treaty, which established the U.N. World Heritage Sites, the United States legally obligated itself to manage our historic national landmarks in compliance with U.N., not U.S., standards. 2 The U.S. has also allowed vast amounts of land to become U.N.-designated Biosphere Reserves. A Biosphere Reserve is an area that is set aside specifically for conservation and scientific study which, like a World Heritage Site, the United States promises to manage in accordance with U.N. standards.

Currently, the United States has 20 World Heritage Sites and 47 Biosphere Reserves encompassing 51 million acres - an area nearly the size of Colorado. 3 The U.S. is required to regularly report to the U.N. on the status of its World Heritage Sites, specifically its "preservation and protection techniques and its efforts to encourage public awareness about cultural and national heritage." 4

What is especially disturbing about U.N. World Heritage Site and Biosphere Reserve designations are that they can be made by the executive branch unilaterally without congressional approval. Under the terms of the World Heritage Treaty, the President doesn't need to consult anyone before placing U.S. territory under the thumb of the U.N.

While World Heritage Sites, Biosphere Reserves and other U.N. designations don't give the U.N. formal authority to regulate American land, Clinton Administration officials take these designations into account when making land-use decisions. The Administration has used such designations as an excuse to impose new regulations that blatantly restrict the rights of companies and private citizens. A good case in point is the 1995 controversy that erupted over Yellowstone National Park, where the Clinton Administration forced a mining company to abandon a legal mine development project near the park, but on mostly private land. At the request of environmental groups, the Clinton Administration persuaded the U.N. to list Yellowstone as a "World Heritage Site in Danger." 5 This special designation gave the Administration an excuse to force the mining company to abandon the project because it allegedly posed a threat to the park.

Further from home, near Kakadu Park in Australia, the same scenario is being played out. The U.N. World Heritage Committee independently commissioned a study of a mine near the park that concluded the mine would threaten the park's environment. The Committee issued a powerful warning that, unless the Australian government could rebut the findings, the U.N. would list the site as "in danger." 6 The Australian government objects to the U.N.'s demands that it stop the project but it may succumb to the pressure before the year is out.

It's ironic that the Clinton Administration is insisting that the U.S. adhere to U.N. standards in protecting our national landmarks, given the U.S. relationship with the primary body responsible for administering World Heritage Site programs. For the past several decades, the United States has refused to contribute to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), the institutional sponsor of the World Heritage Committee, because the agency has been financially mismanaged and mired in political controversy. 7 Yet the Administration believes this same UNESCO is qualified to judge our ability to protect our most prized national treasures.

Congress has become so concerned over the U.N.'s encroachment on national sovereignty that the U.S. House of Representatives just approved a bill that would help Americans reassert their right to determine how U.S. national territory is managed. Called the American Land Sovereignty Protection Act, the legislation would require the executive branch to seek congressional approval before designating any site on American soil as either a World Heritage Site or Biosphere Reserve. The bill has yet to be acted on in the Senate.

As welcome as the American Land Sovereignty Protection Act is, one wonders why the legislation is necessary to protect Congress's authority over U.S. land in the first place. Article IV of the Constitution stipulates that "Congress shall have power to dispose of and make all needful rules and regulations respecting the territory or other property belonging to the United States."

Curbing executive branch regulatory power is long overdue.

Footnotes:

1 United States House Committee on Resources, World Heritage Sites and Biosphere Reserves Fact Sheet. top
2 Ibid. top
3 Representative Helen Chenoweth, Hearing Before the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources and Public Lands Management Subcommittee, May 26, 1999. top
4 United States House Committe on Resources, World Heritage Sites and Biosphere Reserves Fact Sheet. top
5 Kathleen Benedetto, National Wilderness Institute, Hearing Before the Senate Committtee on Energy and Natural Resources, May 26, 1999. top
6 Professor Jeremy Rabkin, Hearing Before the House Resources Committee, March 18, 1999. top
7 Professor Jeremy Rabkin, Hearing Before the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, May 26, 1999. top

Elizabeth McGeehan is a Research Associate of The National Center for Public Policy Research, a Washington, D.C. think tank. Comments may be sent to EMcGeehan@nationalcenter.org.




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