The Everglades National Park is one of 24 UNESCO World Heritage Sites in the United States.
Even before the D-Day invasion of Normandy, the Allies were making plans to reconstruct Europe after the Nazis had been defeated. In 1942, the various governments which were fighting the Germans met in London and formed the Conference of Allied Ministers of Education (CAME), with the goal of rebuilding the continent’s shattered educational and university systems. During the war, the Allies formed a special unit known as the “Monuments Men” with the specific task of protecting important cultural and historical sites from destruction and of returning stolen or lost art treasures to their rightful owners.
After the Second World War ended, the newly-formed United Nations held a conference in London, attended by 44 nations, to establish an international body with the goal of protecting, preserving and expanding worldwide historical and cultural sites. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) was founded in November 1945. UNESCO’s charter states: “The purpose of the Organization is to contribute to peace and security by promoting collaboration among the nations through education, science and culture in order to further universal respect for justice, for the rule of law and for the human rights and fundamental freedoms which are affirmed for the peoples of the world, without distinction of race, sex, language or religion, by the Charter of the United Nations.”
In 1955, President Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt announced plans to construct a new dam across the Nile River at Aswan, which would form a reservoir for water storage and also control flooding along the Nile. The Aswan Dam was financed by loans from the USSR and designed by the Hydroproject Institute in Moscow.
There was, however, a problem. The huge reservoir that the dam would create would flood a large area of the Nile Valley behind it, and this area contained a number of important archaeological sites, including Nubian, Egyptian and Roman. The largest and most significant was the Abu Simbel Temple, built in the13th Century BCE by the Pharaoh Ramses II.
The Egyptian Government asked UNESCO for help in preserving these sites, and archaeologists from around the world were invited in to do emergency excavations to salvage all of the known tracts before they were inundated by the rising reservoir.
Several plans were proposed to save the Abu Simbel Temple. One option was to allow the reservoir to flood it, and build an underwater viewing chamber with windows where visitors could look at the monument: this was rejected because the water would wear away at the ancient stone and eventually destroy it. Another proposal involved using a series of immense hydraulic jacks to slowly lift the entire monument, foot by foot, filling it in underneath as it went until the Temple was safely above water level. This too was rejected: it would be too expensive and difficult, and the result of any failure would be catastrophic.
Finally, it was decided to cut the original statues and buildings (including their hieroglyph-covered interior chambers) into over 1000 pieces, each between 7 and 13 tons, and relocate them all to higher ground, where they would be painstakingly rebuilt block by block. Here, the re-assembled temple would have to be carefully situated in order to preserve the original alignment, which allowed the rising sun to flood the interior of the temple twice each year and illuminate a series of statues representing Ramses and several Egyptian gods.
Under UNESCO’s direction, over 50 nations participated in the effort, either financially or through engineering or archaeological help. The work began in 1964 and the relocation of the Abu Simbel Temple was completed in 1968. Another 22 sites, ranging from Roman temples to Nubian tombs, were also relocated to higher ground, and that work did not end until 1980.
The massive effort to save the Aswan sites inspired the international community to focus on other significant cultural and historical sites to be protected, and in 1972 the UN adopted the “Convention Concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage”, today known as the World Heritage Convention. Under this process, nations may nominate historical, cultural and natural sites within their borders for international protection as a “World Heritage Site”.
The criteria for listing such sites are:
“To represent a masterpiece of human creative genius.
“To exhibit an important interchange of human values, over a span of time or within a cultural area of the world, on developments in architecture or technology, monumental arts, town-planning or landscape design.
“To bear a unique or at least exceptional testimony to a cultural tradition or to a civilization which is living or which has disappeared.
“To be an outstanding example of a type of building, architectural or technological ensemble or landscape which illustrates (a) significant stage(s) in human history.
“To be an outstanding example of a traditional human settlement, land-use, or sea-use which is representative of a culture (or cultures), or human interaction with the environment especially when it has become vulnerable under the impact of irreversible change.
“To be directly or tangibly associated with events or living traditions, with ideas, or with beliefs, with artistic and literary works of outstanding universal significance.
“To contain superlative natural phenomena or areas of exceptional natural beauty and aesthetic importance.
“To be outstanding examples representing major stages of earth’s history, including the record of life, significant on-going geological processes in the development of landforms, or significant geomorphic or physiographic features.
“To be outstanding examples representing significant on-going ecological and biological processes in the evolution and development of terrestrial, fresh water, coastal and marine ecosystems and communities of plants and animals.
“To contain the most important and significant natural habitats for in-situ conservation of biological diversity, including those containing threatened species of outstanding universal value from the point of view of science or conservation.”
The sites that were initially protected under the Convention were: L’Anse aux Meadows National Historic Park, Canada; Nahanni National Park, Canada; Galapagos Islands, Ecuador; City of Quito, Ecuador; Simien National Park, Ethiopia; Rock-Hewn Churches, Lalibela, Ethiopia; Aachen Cathedral, Germany; Krakow’s Historic Center, Poland; Wieliczka and Bochnia Salt Mines, Poland; Island of Goree, Senegal; Mesa Verde National Park, United States; and Yellowstone National Park, United States. Since then, over 1000 World Heritage Sites have been listed around the globe. Sites that are threatened with damage or destruction, whether through natural processes or human activities, can be placed on a “List of World Heritage in Danger”, which triggers a series of legal protections and international conservation aid.
Today, one of the most famous of the UNESCO World Heritage Sites is the Florida Everglades.
The ecology of the Everglades is unique, but a bit complex. Technically, the Everglades is a slough (pronounced “slew”), which is a wide shallow slow-moving sheet of water. It moves very slowly from Lake Okeechobee to empty into the Gulf of Mexico at the southern tip of Florida.
The majority of the Everglades ecosystem consists of sawgrass prairie. During the rainy season this is usually around knee-deep in water, but during the dry winter season it can dry up almost completely, with just wet mud allowing the grasses to survive.
In areas that have a slightly higher elevation (sometimes as little as six inches) there is enough drier soil to allow trees to root, and these form hills called “hammocks”. The plant and animal species here are completely different from those that inhabit the surrounding sawgrass prairie.
Conversely, areas that are slightly deeper than the surrounding sawgrass (often because an Alligator had dug himself a winter gator hole) are usually inhabited by willows or cypress, and these too are distinct microhabitats. Over time, the acidic cypress needles that drop into the water will eat away at the limestone and make the hole deeper.
There are also some areas that are very deep (several feet) and these were made by humans who dug out blocks of the limestone bedrock for construction. This forms ponds which are usually covered by Spatterdock.
The wildlife diversity is tremendous. There are at least 360 bird species that spend all or part of the year in the park, including a variety of Egrets, Herons and Ibis. Around 40 mammals are found in the Everglades, ranging from Florida Panthers to Bobcats to Raccoons. Over 1000 different varieties of plants inhabit the area.
The southern area of the park, along the Florida shoreline, is a coastal saltwater habitat. It is one of the largest areas of Mangrove forests in the US, which provides habitat for a wide variety of fish and marine animals. It is also the only area of the United States to have American Crocodiles, and the only area in the world to have both Alligators and Crocodiles.
For centuries, areas like this were considered to be worthless “swamps”, and a series of laws called the Swamp Land Acts in the 1850s allowed the Federal Government to give land to the States on the condition that they drain it and convert it into “productive farmland”. Oddly, this process of “land reclamation” was only slowed because of changes in gun technology. By the 1880s, the introduction of smokeless powder and pump-action shotguns turned “duck hunting” into a widespread leisure activity that was enjoyed by the well-to-do, and this was coupled with national efforts to protect migratory birds and waterfowl. As a result, a series of laws were passed to protect duck habitats for sporting uses.
But wasn’t until the 1970s, with the rise of the environmentalist movement, that the important ecological role played by these areas was widely recognized. Policies now changed: the pejorative “swamp” became transformed into the more acceptable “wetland”, and the goal switched from “destruction” to “protection”. A series of laws were passed (including the Clean Water Act) which gave legal protection to wetlands and their inhabitants.
In particular, the Everglades had always been the target of US Army Corps of Engineers efforts to dike it, drain it and destroy it, mostly for the benefit of large sugar companies with extensive land holdings. In 1934, Congress had already authorized the National Park Service to establish the Everglades National Park to protect its natural beauty and its diverse wildlife, but acquiring the necessary land stalled for several years. Efforts to preserve the unique Everglades ecosystem did not really take off until local writer Marjory Stoneman Douglas published The Everglades: River of Grass in 1947. Virtually single-handedly, she brought attention to the degradation that the Everglades had suffered and made a successful plea to protect it. A series of State and Federal laws followed which established additional parks, including Big Cypress National Preserve, and directed the Corps of Engineers to reverse its previous work and to begin removing its dikes and dams to restore the free flow of water.
In 1979 the Everglades was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. UNESCO noted, “The Everglades contains vast subtropical wetlands and coastal/marine ecosystems including freshwater marshes, tropical hardwood hammocks, pine rocklands, extensive mangrove forests, saltwater marshes, and seagrass ecosystems important to commercial and recreational fisheries. Complex biological processes range from basic algal associations through progressively higher species and ultimately to primary predators such as the alligator, crocodile, and Florida panther; the food chain is superbly evident and unbroken. The mixture of subtropical and temperate wildlife species is found nowhere else in the United States… Everglades National Park is a noteworthy example of viable biological processes. The exceptional variety of its water habitats has made it a sanctuary for a large number of birds and reptiles and it provides refuge for over 20 rare, endangered, and threatened species. These include the Florida panther, snail kite, alligator, crocodile, and manatee. It provides important foraging and breeding habitat for more than 400 species of birds, includes the most significant breeding grounds for wading birds in North America and is a major corridor for migration.”
Today, Everglades National Park is one of the most-visited tourist destinations in Florida. The park has four entrances. Royal Palm, near Homestead, is where most visitors enter the park. It is the best place to see birds. The Flamingo Visitors Center is about an hour’s drive from the park entrance in Homestead, so many tourists don’t make the trip down, and spend all their time up at Royal Palm instead. Much of this area is saltwater, and it is the place to go to see American Crocodiles. Shark Valley is at the northern edge of the park. No, there are no sharks here (it is named after the nearby Shark River), but it is a good place to see Alligators. The most recent (and most remote) of the entrances is at Everglades City, at the west edge of the park on the Gulf of Mexico. Although it is on the saltwater coast, it is too far north for Crocodiles, but is a good place to see birds.