UNESCO world heritage sites in Indian country are in danger, and most of those sites are historically or spiritually important to the indigenous peoples living nearby. There are only 229 world heritage sites in the entire world recognized as such by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). Of that number, virtually half—114—are threatened by economic development, according to a report by the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), formerly known as the World Wildlife Fund.
North America contains 20 world heritage sites. Latin America and the Caribbean contain 41. UNESCO distinguishes between natural sites and mixed sites that also deserve protection for cultural reasons. UNESCO looks for “cultural and/or natural significance which is so exceptional as to transcend national boundaries and to be of common importance for present and future generations of all humanity.”
Sites that can meet that standard in the Americas typically had great significance to indigenous people before the colonists came. Indians will have built most ruins of the appropriate age, and most of the truly breathtaking natural features in the Americas were or are sacred to peoples who lived nearby, places of ceremony and prayer.
Here is a list of threatened world heritage sites in North America, along with the nature of the threat. Read this list to ask whether UNESCO world heritage sites in the Americas are important to surviving Indigenous Peoples. It’s our world, too.
Canada Rocky Mountain Parks world heritage site was designated as exemplary of the beauty of the Rocky Mountains and habitat for endangered species. The site encompasses four national parks (Banff, Jasper, Kootenay, Yoho) and three British Columbia parks (Hamber, Mount Assiniboine, Mount Robson). It also contains the Burgess Shale site, one of the finest fossil beds in the world. Burgess was a national heritage site on its own before being included in the Canada Rocky Mountain Parks site.
Archaeological digs within the site have shown that occupation by the Kootenay people goes back at least 4,000 years.
The primary threat to the parks is the challenge of water management. Development is proceeding at a pace that outstrips the available water and in the fight over the headwaters of Alberta; the wilderness has less political clout than developers.
Wood Buffalo National Park is the largest national park in Canada and the second largest in the world. The park is bigger than Switzerland.
It was established in 1922 to protect the largest surviving herd of free-roaming wood bison. It also contains one of two known nesting sites for endangered whooping cranes. Unfortunately, Wood Buffalo is directly north of the Athabasca Oil Sands.
Wood Buffalo is threatened by water management practices and mining for bitumen (tar sands crude). The danger to Wood Buffalo was brought to world attention when the Mikisew Cree First Nation filed a complaint with UNESCO and the complaint was sustained.
Calakmul and surrounding tropical forests. This ancient Mayan city is threatened by water management practices, and the forest is in danger of the same fate as too many tropical forests, destroyed by logging for short-term profit.
El Pinacate and Gran Desierto de Altar Biosphere Reserve occupies part of the Mexican state of Sonora and the Tohono O’Odham Nation. It preserves high desert animal habitat and contains three sets of volcanic peaks with the resulting craters, dried lava, and volcanic sand. Human habitation goes back over 20,000 years. It is also the northern terminus of the “jaguar cultural corridor” stretching down through South America and safeguarded by tribal traditions north to south
The reserve is threatened by poor management of limited water, combined with road and other infrastructure construction that aggravates the shortage.
Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve. In the central Mexican states of México and Michoacán, the forests are a winter haven for more than a billion monarchs from all over North America. Tourists come from vast distances to see the colorful animals fill the sky and to be covered in them.
Wood harvesting is impinging on butterfly habitat and destroying the world’s heritage for short-term profit.
Everglades National Park is the largest subtropical wilderness reserve in North America. It contains the largest mangrove ecosystem and the most sweeping stand of sawgrass prairie on the continent. Everglades is situated on a bird migration corridor and is home to more than 20 endangered or threatened species.
The Everglades ecosystem has been disrupted by two invasive species—pythons and Lygodium microphyllum, commonly known as Old World climbing fern. But the biggest threat to the site is water, both quantity and quality.
The Everglades are only half the size they used to be because of the drainage of swamps for development and agriculture. The agriculture releases pollutants into what water is flowing, particularly phosphorus from fertilizer.
Grand Canyon National Park needs no introduction. The views from the South Rim are iconic, and any travel north or south between Arizona and Utah has to account for it by driving around or flying over. Airline crews flying over at high altitude often point the canyon out for passengers.
The Navajo Nation is having an internal disagreement about a proposed development that would take tourists down to the confluence of the Colorado and Little Colorado rivers in a gondola. While the National Park Service is opposed to that development, a more serious threat is the expansion of the city of Tusayan, Arizona, to require four times the amount of water it uses now in the teeth of the worst draught in 110 years. Tusayan’s wells have already dropped the aquifer on the Colorado Plateau by 10 percent.
The park keeps an 18-day supply of water—13 million gallons—in storage on the South Rim, but about half of that is earmarked for firefighting. When the water level drops to half, fewer people can come into the park. How much the aquifer feeds the springs that feed the Colorado River and keep the Grand Canyon nature’s work in progress is something that may be discovered the hard way.
Olympic National Park in Washington State was listed as a national heritage site as one of the largest virgin temperate zone forests in the world and because it includes ecosystems from seashore to mountain glaciers in one natural area, offering habitat to a wide variety of plants and animals.
The primary threat to Olympic park lies in the value of virgin forest and the persistent political pressure to allow the harvesting of those trees.
In fact, UNESCO counts it as a mixed site with great cultural significance to Native Hawaiians. It includes the island of Mokumanamana, with the highest density of sacred sites in the entire Hawaiian Archipelago. Archaeologists date human settlement to 1,000 C.E.
What could threaten a place so isolated with such a long history of human settlement? The shipping lanes. The caretakers call the problem “marine debris,” which is a politic way of saying that people are throwing too much shit into the water. Particularly plastics, which harm the wildlife in several ways. Discarded batteries leak lead and mercury. While there is some detritus remaining from early settlement, the primary threat to that world heritage site could be mitigated if people would just quit treating the mighty Pacific Ocean as a giant toilet, so big it never needs flushing.
Redwood National and State Parks are all about saving a few stands of the immensely valuable redwood. A few Indians still live in the park area, and archaeological evidence shows indigenous presence for about 4,000 years. Yurok, Tolowa, Karok, Chilula and Wiyot have ties to the land, but California was the site of one of the most overt and most successful genocides on the continent during the gold rush.
Redwoods have seen a lot of this evil history, since they live 500 to 700 years. A few have been documented at 2,000 years. These are the living things that die so people don’t have to repaint their decks every year. The only reason whole redwoods are seldom poached is their size. It would be pretty hard to remove one without being noticed.
Still, poachers have done significant damage by hacking out redwood burls to be sold for ornaments and souvenirs. Redwood burls, with their color and prominent grain, are as beautiful as they are rare. As a result of the poaching, the parks have had to close at night, when the poachers typically strike.
WWF lists the major threat as road building around and among the redwoods where there is already too much area to effectively patrol for poachers. A redwood burl can easily bring a thousand dollars and up, so it’s another case of destruction of the world’s heritage for short-term profit.