Saturday, October 22, 2011

World Heritage Parks--A Global Legacy

Independence Hall. The Grand Canyon. What could a red brick building in Philadelphia possibly have in common with a mile-deep canyon in Arizona? And how do either relate to Mesa Verde's prehistoric cliff dwellings or Olympic's temperate rainforests or Yellowstone's plethora of mudpots and geysers? All are superlative examples of our country's historical, geological, and biological heritage and as such as part of our national park system.

But even above that, the World Heritage Committee has declared them to be World Heritage Sites. This designation puts them on a select list of protected areas around the world whose exceptional cultural and natural qualities represent a shared inheritance so irreplaceable their preservation transcends political and national boundaries.

They are universal treasures. All have been evaluated against World Heritage guidelines and meet at least one (usually more) of the criteria involved: some represent outstanding examples of the earth's evolutionary history; others illustrate ongoing geological processes, biological evolution, or man's interaction with his environment.

Some contain superlative natural phenomena or areas of exceptional natural beauty; others bear a unique or exceptional testimony to a civilization which has disappeared. Some are the foremost habitats where threatened or endangered species still survive; others are associated with events or ideas of beliefs of outstanding universal significance.

Since its 1972 founding, the World Heritage Convention  has identified 936 World Heritage Sites in 145 countries, and because the process is on-going, the list will continue to grow. As of now 21 of those sites lie wholly within U.S. boundaries, and another straddles the border between Alaska and Canada. Yet no matter what their location, these best of the best all claim a common denominator: each is the legacy of every man, woman, and child on earth.


Yellowstone's mudpots
and geysers are filled with
water hot enough to boil the
skin off your fingers in
a millisecond.
Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming comprises the world's largest concentration of hot springs and geysers, the remains of innumerable lava flows, 41 waterfalls, petrified redwoods, and the largest free-ranging herd of bison left on earth. The park also represents the flowering of an idea that has since been exported around the world. Today, more than 100 nations have their own national parks or equivalent reserves.

The Everglades sawgrass
rivers are one of a kind.
Everglades National Park in Florida is the place where temperate North America meets the tropics. Its landscape is characterized by marshes or glades that, en masse, constitute a "river of grass." It is one of the last remaining marshlands, and as such is a watery haven inhabited by more than 300 bird and animal species, 15 of which are endangered or threatened.

Photos never do
the canyon justice.
You can't imagine
the scope unless you
see it yourself.
Grand Canyon National Park in Arizona is one of nature's finest monuments to the combined forces of deposition, uplift, erosion, and gravity. The awesome chasm reveals the world's most complete record of geologic time--2 billion years recorded in stone. It is here that the Colorado River has sculpted the earth in a grandiose fashion, creating a system of canyons, gorges, ravines, peaks and buttes that is unparalleled in the world.

The Great Smoky
Mountains are lovely
any time of year, but
especially so in autumn.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park in Tennessee contains the largest block of virgin red spruce left on earth, the finest collection of pioneer log structures remaining in the U.S., and a large and diverse collection of plant and animal communities. It is the largest park east of the Mississippi River, and while it is little more than a half-million acres in size, its yearly visitation is nine million--nearly four times that of Yellowstone, the largest park in the contiguous 48 states.

Independence Hall,
where American freedom
was born.
Independence Hall in Philadelphia, PA is one of the world's outstanding cultural resources, possessing important associations with ideas, beliefs, and events of outstanding historical importance. It was here that the two most important documents in human history were adopted and signed: the U.S. Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution. Both have transcended their own particular circumstances to become part of the political and philosophical heritage of the world: the Declaration as a vital precedent for nations struggling to win independence from colonial powers and the Constitution as the oldest formal document of its sort still in use.

The tour guide asked if
anyone wanted to go back
as this was the last chance
to get out of the cave.
I raised my hand without
thinking twice. Jim and the
kids stayed. Daredevils.
Mammoth Cave National Park in KY contains the longest known cave system in the world. Nearly every type of cave formation is known within this site and the geological processes involved in cave formation continue. The long passages, huge chambers, vertical shafts, stalagmites, stalactites, gypsum flowers and needles are all superlative examples of their types. In addition, the cave's flora and fauna is the richest caverniculous wildlife known, numbering about 200 species--of which 12 are rare and endemic to the cave system. If you are a cave lover, which I am not, this is the one to see.

Getting to this stone city
involved climbing a rope
ladder up a cliff and crawling
through a rock tunnel.
Mesa Verde National Park in Colorado contains the remains of one of the earliest native American civilizations in the U.S. Some 4,000 prehistoric sites have been identified, of which 600 are the famous cliff dwellings. It is one of the best preserved ruins in the Southwest, and was the first U.S. National Park set aside strictly to commemorate the works of man.

The Olympic rainforest has
a subdued beauty all its
own. One expects to see
elves hiding beneath
the duff.
Olympic National Park in WA boasts the largest intact stand of mixed coniferous forests in the lower 48 states, and most of the world-record specimens of major coniferous species are found here. The park contains the Western Hemisphere's best example of virgin temperate rainforest--a living biomass which may be the highest of anywhere in the world. Olympic's varied topography takes in everything from sea level to ski level and its mountains house 60 active glaciers that are at the lowest latitude in the world at which glaciers begin and exist.

The coast redwoods
are mind-boggling.
Can you spot the car
on the roadway?
Redwood National Park in CA is home to the world's tallest living things, the coast redwoods or sequoia sempervirens. The trees are known for their ability to withstand fire, insects, and disease. They are long-living, with 2,000 years not uncommon. These trees are a remnant specie predating the dinosaurs, and while their ancestors once covered much of the Northern Hemisphere, today's redwoods grow only along a narrow stretch of northern California coastline--with the giants residing inside park borders. The redwoods are often mistaken to be the same tree that grows in Sequoia NP, and while the two are cousins, they are far from identical.

I've never climbed
El Capitan. My mother
didn't raise any
Yosemite National Park in CA contains outstanding examples of North America's Ice Age--a time when great frozen rivers flowed down Yosemite's streamcut canyons to sculpt the incomparable Yosemite Valley, leaving behind highlands dotted with erratics (boulders dropped by melting ice), glacial ponds, and polished domes. The park claims El Capitan, the world's largest exposed block of solid granite; five of the ten highest waterfalls on earth; and three groves of giant sequoias or sequoiadendron giganteum--the largest living things in the world.

When I was a child my
family visited the
statue. We all climbed
a rickidy stairway to
the crown, where we
peeked out our heads and
took photos.
The Statue of Liberty in New York is a triumph of late 19th century art and engineering. The 152-foot copper statue, created by French sculptor Frederic Bartholdi, was presented to the American people in 1886 as a gift from the people of France, commemorating the ties forged between the two countries during the American Revolution. For many years the Statue remained the tallest freestanding colossal image in the world, and it is still one of the most widely-known works of art. Although the statue was conceived primarily as an international gesture of friendship it has long been a premier symbol of the Untied States, representing the idea of democracy and freedom--largely because of its close proximity  to Ellis Island, the primary U.S. immigration reception center from 1892-1954.

In all our years of travel, Jim and I hauled our kids around from place to place, taking in many of these sites, long before there ever was a World Heritage List. We tented, as that's all we could afford to do. We cooked and ate outside--at a picnic table if we were lucky enough to have one. We hiked the trails, watched the wildlife, and tried to stay away from bears--though we weren't always completely successful. One year at Yosemite, a brown bear walked into camp to check out our food supply. Luckily, we had stored it in the bear proof bins. His pal hid out inside the ladies restroom--something we didn't know till we heard the screams and resultant ruckus of the ladies who met him face to face. Would I do it all again? You bet. And even though the above list is not all encompassing, seeing any or all of our nation's World Heritage Sites is far better than sitting in history class just reading about them. Trust me on this.

Jim and the kids at the rim of Grand Canyon. We went back
many times as the kids grew and the last time we were
there we hiked part way down into the gorge. We
would have gone farther, but hadn't thought to take
water with us. Big mistake.

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