Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

UNESCO can swing both ways

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Last week, much was made of a decision by UNESCO to name Red Bay in Labrador a World Heritage Site. The decision was based on the significance of the site's role as a Basque whaling station in the 16th century, and it means Red Bay joins Gros Morne and L'Anse aux Meadows as the only three sites in the province. It's a feather in the community's cap and an opportunity: It puts the community on the map and could create significant tourism benefits for the town of 200.

Peter Kent, the minister responsible for Parks Canada, said in a news release the "international designation indicates that the site's cultural characteristics are so exceptional, they deserve to be protected for the benefit of all humanity."

But governments are not always successful at maintaining that protection. This province's government had an extensive inventory of provincial parks and scenic sites -- until cost got in the way, and many were privatized during the tight financial times during the administration of Clyde Wells. Many of those privatized sites are now afterthoughts rather than highlights of this province's beauty.

Other sites, such as an area of alpine plants in the Hawke Hills -- the most southerly and easterly location for such vegetation -- became natural reserves administered by the province. But businesses found other values for the high elevation.

According to the province's web page on the site, "As early as the 1970s, a site just north of the current reserve was identified for protection under the International Biological Program. Before a reserve was created, some of the plant life there was destroyed by the construction of a microwave network and associated maintenance roads. This further emphasized the need for a reserve to protect a portion of this unique ecosystem."

Other provincial ecological sites, including one that has plants so rare they exist nowhere else in the world, have been threatened, at times, by industries such as quarrying.

Even national parks aren't without their threats. Not that long ago, plans to route Muskrat Falls transmission lines through Gros Morne National Park had UNESCO reconsidering the park's status as a World Heritage Site. Then-premier Danny Williams later backed down from the transmission route plan, saying the power transmission corridor would take a more remote and expensive route over the Long Range Mountains.

The current debate over whether to allow slickwater fracking in oil exploration in the Gros Morne area is once again raising questions, and UNESCO is once again monitoring the situation.

"Very clearly this is an issue of concern to us," Guy Debonnet, the UNESCO unit chief for North American heritage sites, told the CBC. "There is a possibility of de-listing the site from the world heritage list. Of course, we are not talking about this issue for the moment."

The bottom line is that creating a reserve is a good beginning, but only a beginning. The resolve has to go much farther and last much longer.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 29, 2013 A9

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