American Way : A Setting Of Exceptional Beauty
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American Way : A Setting Of Exceptional Beauty

Subhed: Recently named a UNESCO World Heritage Site, St. Lucia ’s Piton Mountains join stunners like Yosemite National Park and the Galapagos Islands as world treasures.

By Elaine Glusac

St. Lucia ’s Pitons, few though they are, are mountains of many faces. From the spit of sand between them, the twin volcanic spires are a South Pacific mirage in the Caribbean . To hikers midclimb, they are Stairmasters of mossy rock, slick roots, and tangled vines. To islanders they symbolize the nation.

“A child’s first drawing in school is of the Pitons. Amerindians worshipped the mountains as gods. Farmers use them as weather indicators. Fishermen use them as navigational sites,” says Darnley Lebourne, program officer at the preservation-minded St. Lucia National Trust. “They represent all that we are.”

“And now, to the United Nations, the region is officially “a setting of exceptional beauty.”

Last fall, the United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization, or UNESCO, deemed the isle’s signature peaks and surrounding acreage a World Heritage Site — one of 34 new inductees to join the ranks of the Great Wall of China, old Quebec City, the Acropolis in Athens, and Mont-Saint-Michel cathedral in France. The mountains qualify for the program as a “natural property,” one of five new natural sites recognized, joining landscape stunners such as Yosemite National Park and Ecuador ’s Galapagos Islands . Cultural sites, including Egypt ’s pyramids and many cathedrals, make up the majority of the 788-strong list.

Countries nominate their own esteemed places which are then weighed by the 21-member World Heritage Committee, convened in 1972 to cite the world’s treasures, both man-made and God-given, with the aim of protecting them. Considering such disparate spots as Argentina ’s Iguazu National Park and the historic center of Prague , the Committee evaluates each application individually on the basis of its significance to the world “from the point of view of history, art or science.” In the end all of these disparate locales share, according to the Committee, an “outstanding universal value.”

Given that there is no monetary award, the countries are in it for the plaque. St. Lucia expects some guidance on implementing conservation programs from UNESCO, but little in the way of funding — instead considering a tax on area businesses to help pay for Pitons upkeep, lending a sharper eye to maintenance in the area since winning the prestigious World Heritage title.

During the lengthy application process, countries agree to follow UNESCO guidelines for preserving and protecting the resource, reporting their efforts back to the Committee. In return listed nations gain positive publicity and perhaps, as St. Lucia expects, a boost in tourism. But the power of PR wielded by the World Heritage Committee cuts both ways. Should stewards fail to maintain a World Heritage site the Committee will consign it to its World Heritage in Danger list of imperiled sites (of which there are currently 35). Sometimes the threat of enlistment is enough to inspire a fix. Warned with a Danger designation in 1997 due to insufficient environmental protection, Ecuador voted in tougher laws within the year for the Galapagos Islands and the sea surrounding them, avoiding what was sure to be an international uproar and a corresponding decline in tourism.

Regardless of financial details, though, St. Lucians are still celebrating. “Everyone is excited,” says taxi driver Bony Lionel, navigating umpteen hairpin bends en route to the range. “It meant the world took notice.”

What the world will find in the plunging Pitons are eroded lava domes from a collapsed volcano — part of a geologic system inventorying gassy fumaroles, hot springs, and a vast reef supporting 168 species of fish and 60 kinds of corals, mollusks, and sponges. Some 148 plant types carpet the lush pinnacles, harboring 27 bird types, three bats, eight reptiles, and a boast-worthy three rodents.

Testing its eco-assets, I engage hiking guide Titus Edgar to escort me up Gros Pitons, the fatter of the pair. Quads and lungs ache on the ascent to the 2,500-foot summit, but steep steps and the pull of gravity make the descent an equal challenge to balance. Edgar and I share the mountain with several hummingbirds, a red-neck pigeon, mountain warblers, and one mongoose throughout the sweaty three-and-a-half-hour round trip that rewards with panoramas clear to distant neighbor isle St. Vincent and a peak-to-peak view of sibling Petit Piton.

The Pitons plummet directly into the sea, making it possible to do the mountains without the aerobic climb. Reef conservation here predates UNESCO’s actions, nursing vibrant schools of reef fish that, on one particular snorkeling dip, draw the attention of a four-foot barracuda, while a Spanish lobster does his best to resemble a rock.

Managing the World Heritage program, St. Lucia National Trust must balance the competing concerns of development and conservation, considering new building codes for the World Heritage area, for example, and possibly removing ill-placed cell phone towers from the district.

Next up the green-oriented group aims to inaugurate its first national park later this year, in the south, while the all-inclusive Sandals chain starts construction in the north on its fourth island resort.

“ St. Lucia has had mass tourism historically,” says the National Trust’s Lebourne. “Now we may have some eco-tourists. St. Lucia blends the two.”

Author Bio: Contributing editor Elaine Glusac summitted Gros Piton and survived to walk another day.

UNESCO Newbies

Subhed: Here are our eight favorite sites among the most recent class of World Heritage inductees.

There are no roads in Andorra ’s Madriu-Claror-Perafita Valley , an unspoiled mountain setting of pastures, glaciers, and cliffs that covers nearly 10 percent of the country.

Built as the Palace of Industry for international exhibitions in 1880 and 1888, Melbourne , Australia ’s, Royal Exhibition Building and its surrounding Carlton Gardens blend Byzantine, Romanesque, and Renaissance styles.

Greenland’s Ilulissat Icefjord, long studied for climate change and ice cap glaciology, is one of the fastest-moving glaciers in the world, calving more than any glacier outside Antarctica .

India ’s Champaner-Pavagadh Archaeological Park has yet to be fully excavated, but it encompasses sites dating from prehistory to the remains of a 15th-century capital.

Some 15 million pilgrims annually visit three sacred sites — Yoshino and Omine, Kumano Sanzan, and Koyasan — along forested pilgrimage routes in the Kii Mountain Range in Japan .

The 1948 suburban Mexico City home and studio of architect Luis Barragan enshrine his influential style, blending modernism and vernacular elements.

For 11-plus miles, Germany ’s Dresden Elbe Valley encompasses natural beauty in meadows, industrial achievement in a steel bridge and suspension-cable railway, and architectural wealth in the Pillnitz Palace .

Located above the Arctic Circle, Russia ’s Wrangel Island Reserve nurtures the world’s largest group of Pacific walrus, the highest density of polar-bear dens, and nesting grounds for 100 migratory bird species.

For a complete list of World Heritage sites, go to whc.unesco.org.