The Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge was originally identified as a potential UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1982 – the first step to being accepted as a site of “outstanding universal value” by the United Nations Educational Cultural and Scientific Organization (UNESCO). In 2007, the refuge was officially placed on the United States Tentative List, where it remained for more than a decade.
UNESCO World Heritage inscription is a highly competitive process, both at the national level and international level. A UNESCO World Heritage Site is a natural or man-made site recognized as being of “outstanding universal value.” As of July 2021, a total of 1,154 World Heritage Sites (897 cultural, 218 natural, and 39 mixed (cultural and natural) properties) existed across 167 countries.
The United States has 23 UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Of these, ten are cultural, one is mixed, and twelve are natural sites — with the latter being primarily National Parks. These sites are places of importance in America’s rich history and represent the remarkable diversity of its people and landscapes. The Mesa Verde National Park and the Yellowstone National Park were the first two American sites to be designated as UNESCO World Heritage Sites in 1978. A complete list of the UNESCO World Heritage Sites in the United States is shown below. Click on the graphic to view on whc.unesco.org.
When inscribed, Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge will be the first site entirely managed by the National Wildlife Refuge System (as distinct from the National Park Service) and the first site representative of the subtropical habitats on the North American Coastal Plain.
While inscription as a World Heritage site does not translate into direct grants to the inscribed site — nor alter the ownership or management of the lands in any way — UNESCO recognition is widely acknowledged to result in increased global visibility, as well as a growth in tourism and ensuing economic benefits for the regional community. The Okefenokee inscription will broadcast the extraordinary story of the Okefenokee to people and institutions across the globe and open social, cultural, and economic opportunities for the region. Along with the increased visibility, positive economic impact, and enhanced community spirit, will come an increased capacity to “protect and enhance wildlife and its habitat, ensure integrity of the ecological system, and embrace the grandeur, mystery, and cultural heritage that lead to an enrichment of the human spirit,” a guiding vision of both OSP, Inc. and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, as manager of the Okefenokee Swamp for the NWR.
There is more to the UNESCO bid than the ultimate win. The bid process — a multi-year journey involving private sector, public sector and non-profit institutions — yields tangible rewards. Other U.S.-based UNESCO World Heritage sites have heralded the UNESCO bid process as educating and uniting the community, sparking a meaningful dialogue on the myriad benefits and potential uses of the candidate site. Beyond this enhanced dialogue come even more quantifiable rewards. The road to inscription requires the production of high-quality multimedia content, ranging from a substantial published volume of research, maps and photographs documenting the Okefenokee (the Dossier), to educational videography, targeted press releases, and ad placements designed to showcase the Okefenokee to an international audience of “World Heritage” donors and travelers.