This June, the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) will decide whether Poverty Point National Monument, an ancient city along the Mississippi River in northeast Louisiana, will receive World Heritage status. The distinction would put the 3,000-year-old complex in very rare company, alongside only eight other cultural sites in the U.S., which includes Chaco Canyon and Taos Pueblo.
Now, due to the U.S.'s stance on Middle Eastern politics, Poverty Point may not be considered for World Heritage status at all.
Blame it on the Israel-Palestine conflict. In the 1990s, Congress passed legislation barring the federal government from paying dues to any United Nations body that recognizes Palestine as a legitimate nation. When UNESCO formally acknowledged Palestine's nationhood in late 2011, the U.S. kept its word and stopped paying for its membership.
Meanwhile, Poverty Point is stuck in the middle. The Obama administration, recognizing this, attempted to amend the law so that sites like Poverty Point can move forward with their nominations. Congress rebuffed the administration. The amendment's most vociferous opponents, Representatives Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R., Fla.) and Brad Sherman (D., Calif.), wrote that "a U.N. body that admits states that do not exist -- renders itself unworthy of U.S. taxpayer dollars...."
Last December, Sen. Mary Landrieu (D., La.) wrote a letter to the House and Senate Appropriations Committees, pleading for Congress to pay its U.N. dues. So far, that request has not been honored.
To give some perspective on what World Heritage status means for a site, consider this: Poverty Point was one of only 14 sites initially submitted for consideration in 2008. Each year, a U.N. member country can only submit two sites, and one of those has to be a natural landscape (as opposed to a cultural site such as Mesa Verde or the Statue of Liberty -- both World Heritage sites). Poverty Point is this year's cultural site submission.
Jacques Berry, communications director for Louisiana Lt. Governor Jay Dardenne, says that Poverty Point's fate is tied to name recognition -- or, in this case, the lack thereof.
"It's a shame this is happening this year," he says. "Because next year, the North American site that's going up for consideration is the Alamo*. If the Alamo was coming up this year, you'd see a lot more public involvement. It's a shame, really, because Poverty Point is so important."
Both Lt. Governor Dardenne and Sen. Landrieu have been outspoken about the World Heritage Site's potential for boosting tourism. It would bring some desperately needed income to this little-known corner of the state, while boosting community pride in the region.
Mark Esarey, site manager at Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site in southern Illinois, says that visitation at the St. Louis-area Native American site increased considerably in the years since receiving its World Heritage status.
He writes in an email,
"The site visitation in 1981 – the year before inscription was 41,000. From 1985-1987 visitation range was 72,000 to 84,000. This increase seems directly attributable to the WHS listing and related publicity. 1990 and 1991 both saw over 500,000 visitors to the site. So combination of WHS status and a greatly improved interpretive facilities for visitors."
What remains is the question of whether UNESCO could grant World Heritage status to a site whose home country has not paid its dues. Stephen Morris, Chief of the Office of International Affairs at the National Park Service, is unsure. In a recent interview, he said,
"That's the $64 million question. There's nothing in the operational guidelines that prevents state parties from nominating a site. There’s nothing that makes it illegal. From a legislative standpoint, there’s nothing to prevent it. [But] folks are concerned that even if it’s nominated for inscription, other countries may object."
The nominating committee meets in Doha, Qatar, on June 15 to decide which sites will be included on the World Heritage list. If Poverty Point receives the distinction, it will be unprecedented.
* Technically, the five San Antonio Missions are up for consideration, of which the Alamo is one.