Last month, the U.N. World Heritage Committee made headlines when it took Everglades National Park off its list of endangered sites.
The committee, charged with protecting irreplaceable landmarks of outstanding universal significance, hailed the progress the United States had made toward Everglades restoration. This, even though a report released a week later showed that the billion-dollar restoration project already had fallen years behind schedule.
The committee's decision went against the National Park Service's own recommendation and the U.N. committee's science advisers.
"We said it should stay on the danger list because further work needed to be done," said David Sheppard, who heads the Programme on Protected Areas for the Switzerland-based Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources, which goes by the initials IUCN.
However, Sheppard said, "the head of the U.S. delegation made the comment that it should come off (the list) because of the progress they had made," and the committee went along with that.
The National Park Service's top scientist says politics drove the decision.
"There's always been a kind of pressure from the Washington level to say, 'Okay, we've got a plan, now take us off the list,' " said Robert Johnson, director of the South Florida Natural Resources Center at Everglades National Park since 1995. "I think for the Bush administration, it was seen as a black eye to be on that list."
Being taken off the list "gives people the impression that things are going well," when the restoration is actually decades away from achieving its goals, he said.
For the past four years it has been the only American site listed as being in danger. Being on the list "focuses more international attention on what we do," Johnson said.
Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Interior Todd Willens was the leader of the U.S. delegation who made the motion to take the Everglades off the list. Until last fall, Willens was a top aide to former Rep. Richard Pombo, R-Calif., a frequent critic of environmental laws and environmental groups.
Willens said that making the change was not the result of some political agenda. In fact, it wasn't even his idea, he said. Instead, he said, before the meeting, representatives from some of the 21 other countries on the committee told him they wanted the Everglades off the list because of the 7-year-old restoration project.
So even though the National Park Service's own report recommended keeping the Everglades on the danger list, "I changed the last sentence of our report and said we wanted to be taken off," Willens said.
He said he made the motion before any other country could jump in, because "the U.S. should be fully in charge of its own sites."
The committee is the governing body of the 176-nation World Heritage Convention, set up under a treaty initiated by President Richard Nixon. In 1973, the United States became the first nation to ratify it.
The committee takes inventory of all major world landmarks. It compiled a list of 380 World Heritage sites, including Stonehenge and China's Great Wall. In 1996, when a Polish company proposed building a shopping center near Auschwitz, its World Heritage Site status helped spur international opposition.
Twenty U.S. sites are on the overall list, including the Grand Canyon and Yellowstone National Park. Everglades National Park has been listed as a World Heritage site since 1979.
When the committee puts a site on its danger list, the goal is to call attention to the threats facing the site. For instance, the Galapagos Islands are being invaded by exotic species, and Jerusalem's Old City is imperiled by Mideast unrest.
The committee put Everglades National Park on the danger list in 1993 when it was beset with threats from encroaching development, water pollution and damage from Hurricane Andrew.
In 2000, Congress and the state Legislature approved a complex plan to restore the River of Grass. Some of its crucial elements are six years behind schedule and the cost has ballooned to nearly $20-billion, according to a Government Accountability Office report made public this month.
Last year, on behalf of the U.N. committee, Sheppard of the IUCN visited Everglades National Park to check on progress.
"I thought the site, although there had been significant progress, still faced significant threats," he said. That's why the IUCN recommended the committee keep the Everglades on the danger list for at least two more years.
Meanwhile, Johnson said, the park staff "put a lot of work" into creating a list of benchmarks that could be used to gauge their progress on dealing with the threats, such as curtailing the phosphorous pollution flowing into the park.
But the committee's own staff noted this month that there are still concerns about water pollution in the park and urban development creeping closer to the park boundaries.
"Various sources have emphasized that restoration is progressing very slowly," the committee's staff wrote in a recommendation to keep the Everglades on the list.
But when the committee heard Willens' motion, it went along with it. There was no formal vote, Willens and Sheppard said, and no dissent. Willens said that's because other sites on the list are in far worse shape than the Everglades, such as one in Iraq.
"Some of the other sites are in war zones," he said. "This way the Everglades doesn't take a lot of attention away from them."
Some World Heritage sites classified as endangered:
Dresden Elbe Valley, Germany
Samarra Archaeological City, Iraq
Galapagos Islands, Ecuador