Image: Mount Vernon
Joe Raedle  /  Getty Images file
Mount Vernon, George Washington's family home, is a possible nomination to the World Heritage List as a premier example of an 18th-century plantation landscape.
By Travel writer
msnbc.com contributor
updated 1/13/2009 9:53:19 AM ET 2009-01-13T14:53:19

Have you heard about the U.S.’s two new nominations to the World Heritage List?

One is set amid the suburbs of Washington, D.C.; the other encompasses nearly 140,000 square miles in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. One gets more than 1 million visitors a year; the other rarely sees more than 16 a day. And while most sixth-graders know the story of the former, I can’t even say the name of the latter without phonetic assistance.

Papahānaumokuākea. Papa...hano...moku...ah...kay...uh. Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument.

Well, at least I can pronounce Mount Vernon.

Making a list, making the cut
It’s been 15 years since the U.S. last nominated any sites to be inscribed on the global list  maintained by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). The last two — Carlsbad Caverns and Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park (in conjunction with Canada) — were added in 1995.

Three years ago, though, the Office of International Affairs (OIA) of the National Park Service began developing a new list of candidates for future nomination. Thirty-five applications were submitted, 14 of which were eventually selected for the nation’s new World Heritage Tentative List. That roster will guide U.S. submissions (up to two per year) to the UNESCO list for the next 10 years.

By international agreement, the World Heritage List comprises places and properties considered to have outstanding value — be it cultural, natural or “mixed” — to humankind. The current list features 878 sites, including 20 in the U.S.

Although the list is designed to promote preservation and conservation, it has no impact on ownership or management of individual sites. And while most U.S. sites are already well protected, inscription is still worthwhile, says OIA Chief Stephen Morris: “It’s about having the world community acknowledge these places as significant, as part of the common heritage of humanity.”

Marine diversity, human history and albatrosses
Stretching 1,200 miles northwest from Kauai, the islands, reefs and waters of Papahānaumokuākea represent the oldest and longest example of island formation and atoll evolution on the planet. As the biggest single conservation area in the country, it’s home to the world’s largest colonies of Laysan and black-footed albatrosses and more than 7,000 marine species, including rare green sea turtles and Hawaiian monk seals.

It’s also blessed with a bounty of cultural heritage. According to Athline Clark, state superintendent of the site, Native Hawaiians consider the area the demarcation point between daily life (“Ao”) and the spirit world (“Po”). “The highest concentration of religious shrines in Hawaii are on Nihoa and Mokumanamana,” she says. “It’s one of the last remaining places that represents the Hawaii of old.”

In fact, the monument’s mix of human and natural history is the reason it’s been nominated as a “mixed” site. If it’s inscribed — it will be considered in summer 2010 — it will become the country’s first marine-oriented site, the world’s first “cultural seascape” and just one of 26 sites noted for both their natural and cultural significance.

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In the meantime, visitation is limited to Midway Atoll, site of the tide-turning World War II battle and home to a tiny community with a restaurant, movie theater and lodging in renovated Navy housing. There’s even a bowling alley, but with more than 2 million seabirds on display, Midway is primarily a mecca for birdwatchers.

Most come on eight-day trips organized by the Oceanic Society, a nonprofit conservation group based in San Francisco. Beginning with a 4.5-hour flight from Honolulu, the trips ($4,950 per person) include guided hikes, historical tours, snorkeling excursions and the opportunity to experience life in the middle of a bird colony. “The week goes really fast,” says Birgit Winning, executive director. “People say it’s the experience of a lifetime.”

A premier example of plantation living
More than 6,000 miles east of Midway (and a tad more accessible), the nation’s second nominated site forgoes endless ocean for the grassy banks of the Potomac River. As the longtime home of the nation’s first president, Mount Vernon is considered the most popular historic home in the country.

Ironically, though, its nomination has less to do with George Washington than with the estate itself. “Colonialism was an important part of world history, and plantations were an extension of that,” says Dennis Pogue, associate director for preservation. “Mount Vernon is a premier example of an 18th-century plantation landscape.”

Visitors can experience it touring the mansion and surrounding buildings, wandering the gardens and interacting with costumed interpreters. This month, visitors can also attend special events, including programs celebrating the Washingtons’ 250th wedding anniversary and tours of areas highlighted in the movie “National Treasure: Book of Secrets.” A reconstructed blacksmith shop is expected to open in April.

Like Papahānaumokuākea, Mount Vernon will be considered by the World Heritage Committee next year. In the meantime, the estate is open 365 day a year; admission is $15 for visitors 12 and older and $7 for those ages 6–11.

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