By Victor Block
Even if you’ve explored Everglades National Park in Florida and caught glimpses of crocodiles, manatees and other wildlife or visited Independence Hall in Philadelphia, where important chapters in the birth of the United States were written, did you know that they’re among 24 places throughout the country honored as World Heritage Sites by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization?
UNESCO designates natural destinations and cultural attractions that are “of outstanding universal value” and meet one or more of 10 criteria. Among these are to exhibit “exceptional natural beauty,” provide habitats for threatened species and be associated with events of “universal significance.”
Among diverse places on the list are East Africa’s Serengeti region, Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, the pyramids of Egypt, and great castles and cathedrals throughout Europe.
UNESCO sites in the United States are equally varied. They range from alluring parks to an ancient pueblo, from architectural treasures to cultural icons. You might like to use them as a wish list of places to visit in the future.
It’s no surprise that Everglades National Park is included on the UNESCO list. It’s the largest tropical wetlands and forest wilderness in the country, the biggest mangrove ecosystem in the Western Hemisphere and the most significant breeding ground for tropical wading birds in North America. It’s also home to 36 threatened or protected species.
The setting is very different in the Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park, which straddles the Rocky Mountains along the U.S.-Canadian border. It’s an area of soaring snow-capped mountains, high-altitude lakes and rushing glacier-fed rivers where cedar hemlock forests and alpine tundra provide habitats for more than 300 species of animals. The park serves as a symbol of goodwill between Canada and the United States.
Bats are the primary residents of another site, which UNESCO recognizes for both its beauty and ongoing geologic activity that scientists can study. Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico includes some 100 limestone caves that form an otherworldly underground labyrinth. One massive chamber, almost 4,000 feet long, is called the Big Room. Among names given to other caves are Kings Palace, Papoose Room and Hall of the White Giant. The hundreds of thousands of bats that live in the caverns emerge around sunset to seek their evening meal.
Several very different architectural treasures share space on the UNESCO list. New Mexico also lays claim to the Taos Pueblo, a multistoried reddish-brown adobe structure estimated to have been built between 1000 and 1450 by Tiwa Native Americans. Tribal people still live in the area, some in the simple pueblo where walls were constructed several feet thick for defensive purposes. The impressive northside edifice, the largest multistoried pueblo structure still existing, is one of the most photographed and painted buildings in North America.
The vibe is very different in Virginia, where the home and “Academical Village” designed by Thomas Jefferson are among his many achievements. That says a lot about the man who authored the Declaration of Independence, served as third president of the United States and won plaudits as statesman, diplomat and Founding Father and in other public-service capacities.
He also was a talented architect. Design features for his Monticello plantation house and the complex that became the heart of the University of Virginia attest to his success in melding traditions of European architecture with tenets of the self-government experiment that America represented.
Jefferson’s Academical Core continues to serve as the historic and ceremonial center of his beloved university. It’s based on his vision of a holistic learning environment that extends beyond the classrooms to an open lawn lined by trees and enclosed by interconnected buildings. UNESCO explains that both accomplishments serve as tangible evidence of “the ideas and ideals of Thomas Jefferson.”
A much smaller but no less significant architectural treasure greets those who visit Independence Hall in Philadelphia. Completed in 1753 to house Pennsylvania’s Colonial Assembly, it is where the Declaration of Independence was signed, the Second Continental Congress met and the Constitutional Convention convened after the American Revolution. It’s fitting that at another convention that took place in the building in 1915 formal announcement was made of formation of the League to Enforce Peace. That later led to establishment of the League of Nations and eventually the United Nations.
In contrast, some UNESCO World Heritage Sites are nothing more than earthen mounds, but what they may lack in architectural splendor they make up in terms of the story of humankind. The Poverty Point State Historic Site in Louisiana contains earthen ridges and mounds surrounding a central plaza. They were made by indigenous people between 1700 and 1100 B.C.
According to archaeologists, the site may have served as a settlement, trading center and/or religious ceremonial place. UNESCO notes that the Poverty Point earthworks “bear exceptional testimony to a vanished cultural tradition, the Poverty Point Culture.” The earthen construction “was not surpassed for at least 2,000 years.”
From earth mounds and a university lawn to an ancient pueblo and more modern buildings that played a leading role in the birth of the United States, UNESCO sites throughout the country have varied and very intriguing stories to tell.
WHEN YOU GO
To see a complete list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites, including those in the United States: www.unesco.org
Visitors enter New Mexico’s Carlsbad Caverns, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Photo courtesy of Crackerclips/Dreamstime.com.
. Thomas Jefferson’s Virginia home, Monticello, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Photo courtesy of Marcnorman/Dreamstime.com.
New Mexico’s Taos Pueblo is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Photo courtesy of Nena Giannakidou/Dreamstime.com.
Victor Block is a freelance writer. To read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.