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Half of world’s best natural places are under pressure from industrial activity

A new assessment looked at the U.N.-designated World Heritage Sites whose unique natural features give them “outstanding universal value.”

Damage to the World Heritage Site within the Belize barrier reef has been driven by agricultural runoff, offshore oil drilling and extensive dredging for coastal construction, including a terminal for cruise ships; the Dalberg report says more than half the small country's population is supported by revenue from reef-dependent tourism and fisheries.
Courtesy of Antonio Busiello/World Wildlife Fund

Half of the world’s most important natural places are under threat from mining, oil and gas drilling, unsustainable logging and fishing harvests, or other industrial development, according to a new analysis prepared for the World Wildlife Fund.

The assessment, published Wednesday, looked at the U.N.-designated World Heritage Sites whose unique natural features give them “outstanding universal value.”

It’s a pretty exclusive list – only 229 around the world and just a dozen in the United States. We’re talking about places on the order of the Great Barrier Reef, the Galapagos Islands, Lake Baikal, Grand Canyon ….

All of which, alas, happen to be threatened by encroaching industrial activity in the judgment of Dalberg Global Development Advisors, the international consultancy that did the analysis for WWF.

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(Of course I looked instantly to see if our beloved Boundary Waters region was on the list of threatened areas, but it isn’t even on the list of World Heritage Sites. Yet.)

Of the 229 places studied by Dalberg, 197 were designated as heritage sites by the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization for their natural qualities alone; 32 made it because of a mixture of natural and cultural factors (Peru’s Historic Sanctuary of Machu Picchu – also on the threatened list – is a good example of the mixed designation).

Economic returns

Altogether the 229 sites account for about one-half of 1 percent of the Earth’s surface, and yet it remains a challenge to keep encroachment at bay. This is so even when it is easy to demonstrate, as Dalberg does throughout its analysis, that these sites return significant economic value in forms ranging from fresh water to major streams of tourism-related revenue.

Some 11 million people live within the sites, according to Dalberg, and more than 90 percent of the sites provide employment in some form that would be threatened by further industrialization.

The United Nations reportedly is considering whether to assign troops to protect certain World Heritage Sites that are threatened by war – a difficult undertaking but still simpler, conceptually at least, than dealing with multinational companies which drill holes, dig pits or fell timber where they really shouldn’t.

In a statement accompanying the report, WWF’s director general, Marco Lambertini, put it squarely:

World Heritage sites should receive the highest levels of protection, yet we are often unable to safeguard even this important fraction of the Earth’s surface. We all agree that these are some of the most valuable and unique places on the planet, now we need to work together to let these sites provide for the well-being of people and nature.

 We need to wake up to the fact that people don’t just protect these sites, these sites protect people. Governments and businesses need to prioritize long-term value over short-term revenue and respect the status of these incredible places. We need to turn away from harmful industrial activities and focus on sustainable alternatives that enhance World Heritage sites, their values and the benefits they provide.

U.S. sites doing relatively well

Compared to many other nations – like Italy, whose Cinque Terre World Heritage Park is having its fragile coastline trampled by busloads of tourists, or Spain, where the government is preparing to resume mining operations that poisoned the waters of Doñana National Park in 1998 – the U.S. sites seem to be doing pretty well.

On the unthreatened list we have the national parks at Yellowstone, Mammoth Cave, Great Smoky Mountains, Yosemite and Carlsbad Caverns, as well as Hawaii Volcanoes National Park and two trans-boundary sites we share with Canada: Waterton Glacier International Peace Park and the Kluane/Wrangell-St. Elias/Glacier Bay/Tatshenshini-Alsek region.

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Leading the list of five threatened sites is Everglades National Park, which actually has been classed by UNESCO as officially endangered since 2010; extensive diversion of its source waters to supply expanding development across South Florida presents a serious threat to the ecosystem there.

Grand Canyon National Park is considered threatened by water diversion upstream; Olympic National Park by unsustainable logging; Redwood National and State Parks by road and other infrastructure incursions; and Hawaii’s Papahanaumokuakea National Monument by excessive traffic in the shipping lanes that traverse it.

The Dalberg report doesn’t discuss in detail the threats it sees encroaching on these sites. But I found more context in the monitoring reports maintained by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources, which keeps a close eye on World Heritage Sites globally.

After Everglades, all are ranked by IUCN as “good with some concerns,” the second-highest rating, except for Papahanaumokuakea, a marine area of near-pristine reefs and huge seabird populations, which ranks one step higher as “good” and is not discussed in depth.

Grand Canyon: “Overall the state of World Heritage values is stable or declining slightly, with some key areas of concern and potential deterioration in the next decade. These include: uranium mining; bison, elk, and non-native fish increases; development in the park at the Little Colorado River area and at Quartermaster Canyon; increases in overflights; reservoir equalization flows between Lake Powell and Lake Mead; management capacity; and major developments and groundwater extraction at Tusayan.”

Olympic:  “Within the parameters of normal fluctuation, most park resources are viewed as stable or improving. However, several endangered species continue to decline and off site activities continue to limit the recovery of anadromous fish stocks. Looking to the future, on-going climate change poses the most serious threat to the [value] of the site. Particularly notable will be the loss of sub-alpine habitat, glaciers and more frequent flooding and other weather related events.”

Redwoods: “The ancient redwood forest with its associated beauty and aesthetics is in good condition because the redwoods are growing well. While the established coast redwood trees are likely to persist, many associated species in the park are threatened. The known and anticipated threats to the park’s resources such as invasive species, previous land use, changed fire regime, and future environmental changes require immediate attention to prevent resource loss. Declining funding for park management is the main barrier preventing the park from addressing the issues including restoration and monitoring.”

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The full WWW/Dalberg report, “Protecting People Through Nature,” can be read or downloaded here [PDF] without charge.