Pity poor Yellowstone National Park. In its 131-year existence, the world’s first national park has had its share of troubles: land-altering forest fires, slaughtered bison, invasive species and even more invasive hordes of tourists.
Last week, however, Yellowstone celebrated a small success when it was removed from the world’s list of valuable but endangered places.
In 1978, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization granted the U.S. government’s request that Yellowstone National Park be placed on UNESCO’s World Heritage Site list, which to date has recognized 730 sites around the world for their “exceptional and universal value,” including such global treasures as the Galapagos Islands, the Great Wall of China, the pyramids of Egypt, Timbuktu, France’s Loire Valley and the Statue of Liberty.
In the 1990s, Yellowstone was singled out by UNESCO as a “World Heritage Site in Danger.” The agency listed grizzly bear habitat destruction, nearby oil and gas leases, the failure of Congress to prohibit groundwater pumping outside the park (which had the potential to “disrupt the extraordinary thermal fantasias,” as UNESCO put it), and the annual snowmobile migration as acute pressures on the park. The big red flags for UNESCO, however, were the New World Mine, a gold, silver and copper mine four kilometers from the park’s northeast boundary that was under consideration in 1990, and the slaughter of one-third of the park’s bison population due to the fear of the spread of disease to cattle.
UNESCO brought these problems to the world’s attention in 1995 by placing the park on its endangered list. Though the Paris-based organization has no legal authority to compel any government to accept its recommendations for protecting listed sites, it can put international pressure on ecological tyrants and cultural slobs by making a global example of the treasures they’ve placed in jeopardy.
By the late 1990s, things were looking up for Yellowstone. The Clinton Administration negotiated a $65 million land swap with the mining company, thereby saving the land adjacent to the park from toxic waste storage. And the state and federal governments had formed a committee to better investigate the potential for disease transmission from bison to cattle. That was enough for UNESCO to remove Yellowstone from the endangered list, counting it as one of its “success stories” on its Web site last week.
The park remains on the World Heritage Site list itself, since UNESCO, and presumably much of the world, still believes that Yellowstone is a valuable site worth protecting.
Still on the endangered site list, however, is another American jewel: Everglades National Park. Urban growth, pollution from fertilizers, mercury poisoning of fish and wildlife, a drop in water levels caused by flood protection measures and the destructive Hurricane Andrew of 1992 all combined to put the Everglades on the world’s endangered list.