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World Heritage: Canada

Periodic Report on the Application of the World Heritage Convention



December 2004

6.0 Implementation of the World Heritage Convention in North America: Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Challenges

Through the periodic reporting process, Canada and the US have reached a number of key conclusions in relation to implementation of the World Heritage Convention in North America.

Strong professional and technical capacity

Periodic reporting has confirmed the strong management capacity that is characteristic of both Canada and the US in the field of protected areas generally and World Heritage specifically. As a rule, World Heritage Sites in North America have officially adopted management plans, professionally trained staff, financial support, access to scientific data, and a legislative and policy framework that helps ensure good stewardship. The fact that many of the North American sites are directly administered by the national, provincial or state parks agencies of the two countries also means that the majority of the sites benefit from being part of a system of protected areas with well-established administrative and policy structures geared towards preservation, conservation and presentation. Sites administered by private or municipal authorities enjoy a similar level of professional management.

Sharing within the Region

The two joint Canada-US meetings of World Heritage Site managers convened to develop this report confirmed the value of having opportunities for increased exchange of ideas and information pertaining to site management in a World Heritage context. A number of suggestions to further such exchange were developed in the course of the meetings, including the establishment of an electronic ‘list-serve’ for World Heritage Site managers. Also, invitations to professional meetings in each other’s respective countries and even exchanges of personnel for short-term assignments were broached as possibilities. Increased interaction among the managers and staff at North American World Heritage Sites will build on the initial efforts to develop a network of World Heritage Sites in the region begun as part of the process of preparing the periodic report. The challenge will be to sustain these efforts and this enthusiasm as the impetus of completing the report gives way to pressing day-to-day management responsibilities.

Sharing in a Global Context

There is interest and support in both countries from site managers, as well as within the higher levels of the respective national agencies, for the potential of sharing North American expertise with the global World Heritage network, particularly in lesser developed regions. Over the years, both countries have been actively involved in technical assistance efforts on behalf of World Heritage through a range of governmental and non-governmental agencies. Subject to available resources, the region could provide assistance to World Heritage Sites and national governments in a more systematic and more targeted way with guidance from the World Heritage Committee and the World Heritage Centre regarding the specific needs of particular sites and individual countries. Teams of experts from both Canada and the US could be fielded on an as-needed basis.

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High standards for management plans, legislation and administration

In North America, legislation and programs for the protection and presentation of natural and cultural heritage are well developed and have been evolving over many years.

The first national parks in the world - Yellowstone and Banff - were established in North America in 1872 and 1885 respectively. The system of US state parks was launched in 1864 when the US Congress passed a bill granting the Yosemite Valley to the State of California as a public park, followed in 1885 by New York State which created the Niagara Falls State Reservation, the first state park in the eastern United States. Canada’s first provincial park - Algonquin - was established in Ontario in 1893. Similarly, protection and presentation of sites of historical and cultural significance date to the 19th century. In the US, one of the first acts of historic preservation was undertaken in 1858 by Mt. Vernon Ladies Association which acquired 200 acres of George Washington's estate. Canada’s first national historic site - Fort Anne - was designated in 1917.

The programs and services established to administer these protected heritage areas are well-established. The Canadian and US national parks services are among the oldest in the world, dating to 1911 and 1916 respectively. The Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada was created in 1919.

Key legislation to govern the administration of protected heritage areas in North America dates to the first half of the 20th century. Canada’s National Parks Act was first enacted in 1930, and the Historic Sites and Monuments Act was first enacted in 1953. In the US, the earliest broad-based federal legislation authorizing heritage protection is the Antiquities Act of 1906. The National Park Service Organic Act was passed in 1916. Key legislation is listed in Section I reports for Canada and the US.

Over the course of the 20th century, the legislation and programs focussed on heritage in North America evolved constantly to take account of changing concepts and growing understanding - both at home and internationally - of heritage. In Canada, for example, legislation for and the management of national parks is now based on the concept of maintaining or restoring ecological integrity; at both the national and the provincial levels, programs for the protection of cultural heritage now have a much broader perspective on what is considered culturally significant, so that, for example, the relationship between Aboriginal peoples and the lands they have traditionally occupied is now better recognized.

Of particular importance is the North American emphasis on formal planning to guide the management of protected heritage areas. In most jurisdictions, site management plans are required by legislation or policy, and significant resources are devoted to planning. Given the nature of the management plans, however, and the importance placed on appropriate public participation in preparing them, it is a challenge to keep all plans up-to-date in the face of current issues, changing legislation and policy, and evolving concepts in the field of heritage protection and presentation.

As a result of this long and evolving history of heritage protection and presentation in North America, the legislation and programs that are in place are of a high standard. While there will always be the potential for improvements in these areas, there is a strong foundation for the protection and presentation of natural and cultural heritage. At the local, regional, state, provincial and national levels, this foundation is the means by which the World Heritage Convention is implemented, and provides the basis for nominating sites to the World Heritage List and assuring their long-term conservation.

High level and quality of visitor services

The management authorities of North America’s World Heritage sites put a premium on maintaining a high level and quality of visitor services. Generally speaking all of the North American sites have extensive facilities and educational programs to ensure a high-quality experience for visitors. Visitors centers, trails, touring roads, overnight accommodations, transportation services, and extensive interpretive media including ranger-led programs, wayside exhibits, publications, and Internet sites characterize most US and Canadian World Heritage Sites. The high level of visitor services derives primarily from the fact that the sites are units of national or state or provincial parks systems, are sites found within urban municipalities or are privately administered heritage attractions rather than from their World Heritage status, per se. As an exception, however, at Cahokia Mounds and Miguasha, achievement of World Heritage status for the site was the impetus behind funding support from the Illinois State legislature and the Québec governments respectively, for new visitors centers.

In almost all cases, while levels of visitation have reached a plateau in recent years, the long-term picture tends towards continued growth in the number of visitors. The anticipated increase in visitors has led to the recognition of the need for further analysis of carrying capacity at many of the sites and renewed attention to visitor management. In the US, many of the national parks carrying the World Heritage label are among the most visited sites in the national park system. Several of these are in the process of extensive reorganization of visitor access within their parks introducing, in some cases, mass transit to alleviate the crowding of private automobiles especially during the peak seasons.

Ensuring continued high standards for visitor services is challenged by available funding sources that affect virtually all North American World Heritage Sites. While the responsible governments increase funding support, the needs are often larger than can be supported by the public sector alone. Increasingly, the private and voluntary sectors are being looked upon to fill the gap. Many North American sites have ‘friends of’ or non-profit groups which support the site in a range of ways including supplying volunteers and raising money. In the US, the Congressionally-chartered National Park Foundation has the mission of seeking private sector support from corporations, foundations, and individuals on behalf of the National Park Service and its parks and programs.

Awareness building

In North America, there is not currently a high level of awareness and understanding of the World Heritage Convention, the significance of listing a site on the World Heritage List, or the roles and responsibilities for implementing the World Heritage Convention. This is generally true with respect to local communities living in and near World Heritage Sites and the Canadian and US public at large. It is a conclusion that also applies to those government agencies - at the federal, provincial/territorial/state, and municipal levels - having a mandate to protect heritage or whose decisions might affect protected heritage areas. Some may ascribe this in part to inconsistent and uncoordinated communications about World Heritage by responsible management authorities, and from decisions by both State Party representatives not to make this a particular priority, in the context of other messages that must be communicated at the sites. It may also be seen as a reflection of the fact that US and Canadian parks and historic sites historically have enjoyed strong and broad support from citizen-owners who take pride in their ‘national' parks whose preservation depends on each country’s own laws, not an international designation such as World Heritage. A challenge therefore exists to build awareness and understanding - for the public and policy-makers - of the World Heritage Convention and the responsibilities that arise from inscription of a site on the World Heritage List.

A further challenge in the US is the lingering cloud over World Heritage following the controversy surrounding the inscription of Yellowstone on the World Heritage in Danger List in 1995. This caused significant erosion in the support for the World Heritage program among local populations and the US Congress. The In-Danger listing led to perceptions in some quarters that US participation in the World Heritage Convention had opened the door to a loss of sovereignty over US national parks and “UN interference or control” over US territory.

With these challenges, however, come opportunities. World Heritage Site status is generally understood to mean that a site is recognized as one of the “wonders of the world”, and this offers the opportunity to seek out and develop partnerships aiming to build understanding. A key priority for the future is to reach out to and engage the local communities who are directly affected and benefit most by the World Heritage Site designation. In doing so, one of the important messages will be that the World Heritage Site in Alberta or in Illinois is part of the heritage of humanity, or, in other words, the heritage that is found locally connects the local community to the international community. This can also be a powerful message for visitors - another priority audience - to these sites, which include national icons such as Banff and Québec City in Canada, and Yellowstone and the Statue of Liberty in the United States.

Other opportunities to build upon World Heritage Site status exist. Below is a description of the emerging network and sense of community among World Heritage Site managers that has developed through the periodic reporting exercise. Preparation of the report (and, for Canada, the recent updating of the Tentative List) has raised the profile of World Heritage within the agencies managing these sites, and the opportunity now exists to develop this profile further in coming years. The development of enhanced tourism marketing and awareness strategies based on World Heritage is an emerging priority. As a result of the periodic reporting exercise, Canadian World Heritage Site managers and tourism industry stakeholders have taken initial steps to develop collaborative approaches to building awareness of Canadian World Heritage Sites.

In the US, raising the profile of World Heritage can be achieved by emphasizing the benefits of the designation and seeking to dispel misconceptions that may exist. There is a burgeoning interest in new nominations from among a number of US groups and this renewed interest may also spur more attention to existing World Heritage Sites and the value of the designation. The re-entry of the United States to membership in UNESCO may also afford some advantages in promoting World Heritage, a flagship UNESCO program.

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Emerging network and opportunity to build, share, learn, develop standards

As a result of the meetings convened to produce the North American Periodic Report, there is now a nascent network of World Heritage Site managers and agency officials well-versed in the concepts of World Heritage and interested in supporting and enhancing World Heritage activities in North America. The meetings, described above in Section 2.0, generated enthusiasm about the World Heritage program and produced specific ideas to strengthen the community of site managers. At the conclusion of the last meeting in Québec City, the participants confirmed their interest in building on the momentum established through the development of the first North American Periodic Report.

Among the ideas discussed and agreed to:

  • Establishing a home page on the Internet and/or a chat room
  • Extending invitations to one another for training programs
  • Connecting managers and staff in smaller sub-groupings such as mountain parks
  • Staff exchanges and twinning of sites
  • Using the George Wright Society (a North American academic organization focussing on the management of protected natural areas) meeting to bring managers and staff together
  • Organizing a meeting of site managers in 3 years (the halfway point to the next periodic reporting exercise)
  • Jointly sponsoring research into the socio-economic benefits of World Heritage Site status, to benefit the international community
  • Collaborating on a proposed identity program
  • Collaborating on the development of youth engagement strategies in partnership with existing organizations such as the Young Canada Works program and the Student Conservation Association.

Incorporating the ideas into workplans as specific tasks will require further discussion and, possibly, funding which has yet to be identified.

Recognition of cultural values associated with natural sites

Although several US and Canadian sites were nominated for World Heritage designation under both cultural and natural criteria, the World Heritage Committee did not accept them as mixed sites. In most cases, the sites nominated were protected natural areas with significant indigenous or aboriginal cultural affiliations, including in some cases native groups living within the boundaries of the sites. However, the sites were recognized to have universal value only for their natural attributes, not for their cultural affiliations. It is not clear if the Committee rejected claims of cultural significance at these sites because the case made for the importance of the cultural values was not sufficiently supported, or whether at the time of these inscriptions, the Committee’s views on how these values should be recognized were constrained. Nevertheless, there is a feeling among some that the lack of international recognition or affirmation of the full range of a given site’s values, including its cultural affiliations, diminishes the importance of these attributes. Site management authorities have been placed in the difficult position of explaining to tribal groups and others the limited recognition of universal value at the site within the context of inscription to the World Heritage List.

The increasing recognition of cultural landscapes as a distinct category of sites and the work that has been done under the auspices of World Heritage to better define the parameters of cultural landscapes could help bridge the apparent gap between nature and culture in the World Heritage criteria. In North America, no sites have been nominated as cultural landscapes per se, although arguably some would qualify as such.

One conclusion of the North American Periodic Reporting exercise is the need for the World Heritage Committee to undertake research on how to recognize the importance of local populations residing within and/or adjacent to natural World Heritage Sites.

Jurisdictional co-ordination

Canada and the United States are two geographically large countries governed by federal systems of government. In each country, the federal government, the provincial, territorial and state governments, and municipal governments have defined powers and authorities respecting the protection and presentation of natural and cultural heritage. Increasingly, Aboriginal people in Canada and in the US are exercising powers of self-government, including developing programs to protect and present their heritage. And while Parks Canada and the US NPS are the State Party representatives for the World Heritage Convention in their respective countries, in neither country is there a single government agency with overall national responsibility for protecting and presenting natural or cultural heritage. Instead, natural and cultural heritage is the shared responsibility of a multitude of government departments and agencies, each operating from its own legal authority and a particular perspective, be it local, regional, territorial, state, provincial or national. A number of coordinating mechanisms - such as the Canadian Parks Council, which unites the directors of Canada’s national, provincial and territorial parks systems, and the National Association of State Park Directors, which unites the directors of the American state park systems - currently exist and serve as fora for ongoing exchange and dialogue amongst agencies with authority for heritage protection.

Given this situation, there is no single national plan or strategy or vision in place in either country for the protection and presentation of heritage or, more specifically, for implementation of the World Heritage Convention. Rather, the approach taken is, broadly speaking, the sum of a large number of individual efforts, not a coherent single program. In the main, this is not problematic, because the values underpinning heritage protection across Canada and the United States are generally shared values. However, recognizing the socio-economic, political and cultural variations found in different regions of both countries, it is understandable that the reality of shared responsibility for heritage should give rise to differing approaches and priorities for heritage protection. And when other powers and authorities that touch on matters of heritage are added, such as those for urban planning, or land-use and natural resource-use planning, there is the potential for conflict over specific issues.

This challenge manifests itself on an exceptional basis when other priorities, most often socio-economic priorities, create pressures on natural or cultural heritage sites. This can give rise to a situation in which a government agency responsible for heritage protection finds itself at odds with another government agency, an agency of another level of government or a private sector interest. Without a shared national policy framework for heritage protection, each issue must be tackled afresh on the basis of dialogue, respect for legal authorities, and the search for consensus on shared priorities and values.

It should be noted that the need for and value of coordination and collaboration are not only internal to Canada or the United States. The realities of geography, shared ecosystems and shared historical experiences mean that opportunities for international cooperation between the two countries - whether at the national level, provincial/state level or even at the local level - abound. The two trans-boundary World Heritage Sites are obvious examples of the relationship between the two countries, but no less important are other examples with less international profile. Parks Canada and the US NPS have begun discussions with Mexico on questions of common interest, as follow-up to the World Parks Congress in Durban, South Africa in 2003.

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Management challenges facing World Heritage Sites in North America

In North America, as is the case around the world, managers face a range of challenges in their efforts to conserve, protect and present the outstanding universal values of the World Heritage Sites for which they are responsible. These challenges can be local, associated with visitors to the site or residents living in the site, and they can be global in scale, associated with climate change or the long-range transport of pollutants. In many cases, these challenges operate at a regional scale and originate outside the boundaries of the World Heritage Site. For example, resource development in the vicinity of a World Heritage Site, whether mineral development, oil and gas development, forestry or agriculture, can have impacts on the property. These challenges are typical of challenges facing protected heritage areas - both natural and cultural - around the world.

In facing these challenges, North American World Heritage Site managers have a strong and well-developed foundation of legislation and regulations, policy, planning processes and tools such as environmental impact assessment to draw upon. Managers’ capacity to take action to face these challenges varies greatly depending on the nature of the challenge. In some cases, for example impacts associated with visitation to the property, the manager may have the ability to implement strategies and actions that directly address the situation. In others, the solution may be found through public education and outreach as a means of influencing decision-making. As noted above, the solution is often found in collaboration, coordination and cooperation among various government agencies, different levels of government, the private sector and civil society. In the case of challenges originating at a global scale, international cooperation over the long-term has the highest potential to achieve results.

Details of specific factors affecting the World Heritage Sites in North America are found in the reports prepared for each site.