Membership on an elite United Nations roster of worldwide scenic and cultural attractions might be fine for Yosemite and the Statue of Liberty, but San Luis Obispo County this week turned down that possibility for the Carrizo Plain National Monument, a remote 250,000-acre swath of grasslands at its eastern end.
As a result, with an April 1 deadline looming, the Wilderness Society announced it would abandon its effort to nominate the sprawling monument as a United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization World Heritage site. The U.N. agency does not plan to consider the next round of nominations until 2020, said Geary Hund, the society official who was leading the effort.
"I'm disappointed," Hund said Friday. "I've talked to World Heritage site managers across the U.S. and none of them could think of any drawbacks. What a site gets is recognition and prestige, and those that aren't well-known stand to get increased agency attention and the possibility of attracting more money through grants."
The 3-2 vote by the county's Board of Supervisors came a week after Taft, a small Kern County oil town, also voted to withhold support for the idea. Opposition by local governments almost inevitably dooms such proposals, which must jump numerous hurdles before being approved by the U.S. Interior Department and then by UNESCO.
Supporters of the designation say it brings honor and, in many cases, tourists to the 830 spots worldwide that are now on the list. Opponents warned of a cascade of U.N. rules that could affect not just the monument but also areas surrounding it.
Alberta Lewis, a member of a pioneering Carrizo Plain ranch family, told county supervisors at a Tuesday hearing: "I can see no intelligent reason to tie up any of America with the United Nations. Please, supervisors, don't give away any more of our country."
But Supervisor James Patterson described the designation as "a Nobel Prize" for natural wonders.
In an interview Friday, he said the plan was derailed by "an almost-hysteria about the U.N. coming to San Luis Obispo County. Some people couldn't be persuaded that the U.N. wouldn't have a controlling interest in the monument."
Other supervisors said there wasn't enough time to fully study the idea.
Administered by the Bureau of Land Management, the vast, virtually treeless monument 65 miles east of San Luis Obispo spans terrain that has been described as California's Serengeti and is home to more threatened and endangered animals than any other locale in the state. President Clinton declared it a national monument three days before he left office in 2001 -- even with ranching and some oil drilling inside its borders.
Environmentalists applauded the designation, but it rankled farmers concerned about their grazing rights and oil companies concerned about exploration in the area. One of the nation's most productive oilfields -- land that generates 8% of the state's oil production -- lies in Kern County just east of the monument, said John Martini, head of the California Independent Petroleum Assn.
That rich oilfield could be threatened by a World Heritage site nearby, Martini told officials in Taft earlier this month. He said UNESCO's published guidelines allow the international agency to recommend buffer zones around sites even if, as in the case of Carrizo, none are outlined in the initial application.
"The program doesn't give the U.N. direct control, but it gives a U.N. advisory committee a significant amount of input," he said.
After Martini's lobbying in Taft, the local Chamber of Commerce reversed its support for the designation and the City Council rejected the idea.
"A World Heritage site would bring added tourism to the area," said Mayor Paul Linder, "but we have to rely on the industry that keeps us whole -- the oil industry."
The Wilderness Society's Hund said UNESCO had no authority to impose restrictions of any kind, either inside or outside World Heritage sites.
It can, however, declare a World Heritage site endangered, as it did at Yellowstone in 1995 because of a proposed gold mine three miles from the park. The tag was removed in 2003, seven years after the Clinton administration quashed the mining plan.
In California, there are two World Heritage sites -- Redwoods National Park and Yosemite National Park.
"It has no budgetary implications and no management implications," said Yosemite spokesman Scott Gediman. "But it's certainly an honor and one we take very seriously."
He said the park fills out a questionnaire about environmental conditions for the U.N. every few years, "but we get no specific direction on managing the park any differently than we would otherwise."
Some World Heritage sites have been victims of their own good fortune, drawing hordes of tourists they were ill-equipped to handle. In Peru, nearly 700,000 tourists -- 1,000% more than 25 years ago -- annually flock to the Inca ruins at Machu Picchu, and a sacred artifact there was chipped during the filming of a beer commercial.
Though World Heritage designation alone doesn't cause any damage, it means an automatic place in guidebooks and on tour routes. That's the main reason Ellen Cypher, a Bakersfield plant ecologist who serves on a Carrizo advisory committee, wasn't upset that World Heritage status seems elusive.
"It didn't break my heart that it was turned down," she said. "The biological and cultural resources are world-class, but I was a bit afraid of it being loved to death."