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Protected Areas Overview


Scientists describe the period we live in as “The Anthropocene” (the age of humanity) because there are so few places left on the planet that are not impacted by human activity:

  • Only 25% of Earth’s terrestrial area is now free of significant human disturbance;
  • 70% of the world’s forests are within one kilometer of a forest edge;
  • Only 14% of the planet is more than five kilometers from a road and we may have 15.5m miles (25 million km) of new paved roads by 2050 (enough to circle the planet more than 600 times!);
  • Species populations have declined about 60% overall between 1970 and 2014;
  • Species extinction rates are 1,000 times higher than background rates and one million species are threatened with extinction.


The consequences of the destruction, degradation and fragmentation of our natural environment are catastrophic: climate change, species extinctions, zoonotic diseases (Ebola, Zika etc. and now COVID-19 ), violations of the rights of Indigenous Peoples and local communities, the destruction of livelihoods and the erosion of cultures.

It is critical to protect the remaining areas of the planet that are still in good condition. Protected areas of all types – whether established and managed by Indigenous Peoples, local communities, governments, private individuals or by the private sector – are critical to this effort.

Hoya del Hielo – Cloud forest in Sierra Gorda Biosphere Reserve
Queretaro, Mexico. Photo: Jaime Rojo

We have a two-pronged protected areas strategy: a focus on North America, and a global strategy, which includes an applied research program with Griffith University in Australia, and a focus on World Heritage Sites.

North America Protected Areas

We are working on a strategy to protect some of North America’s most strategically important wild areas for their climate and biodiversity benefits in two regions: the Greater Pacific Northwest Bioregion and the Klamath-Siskiyou and Sierra Nevada Conifer Forests. We select priority areas based on value-added science support, communications, and outreach provided to conservation partners.


Primary Forests and Climate Change Research Projects

Wild Heritage is participating in a global research effort led by Dr. Brendan Mackey, Griffith University, Australia. Our focus is on the Interior Wetbelt of British Columbia, home to one of the world’s rarest and least known rainforests, the inland temperate and boreal rainforest. This unique rainforest is home to some of the oldest trees and most carbon-dense forests on Earth but is under threat from logging as 1,000+ year old cedars are converted into carbon-polluting bio-pellets, shipped overseas and falsely marketed as “clean, renewable, energy.”

The World Heritage Convention: protecting the “best of the best.”

The World Heritage Convention protects the most outstanding natural and cultural sites on Earth: places so exceptional that they should be protected forever for the benefit of all humankind. Many of the world’s greatest wild places – Yosemite, the Galápagos Islands, Virunga, the Okavango Delta, the Great Barrier Reef – are inscribed on the highly prestigious World Heritage List. The World Heritage Convention provides an added layer of oversight to these  protected areas, strengthening their protection.

Many more large, spectacular wild areas of great biocultural importance could be added to the World Heritage List, and many existing World Heritage sites could be expanded. Wild Heritage is working to leverage the World Heritage Convention for additional large land and seascape conservation around the world.

World Heritage Frequently Asked Questions

What is the World Heritage Convention?

The Convention Concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage, commonly known as the World Heritage Convention, protects natural and cultural sites that have “Outstanding Universal Value,” i.e. sites whose significance is “so exceptional as to transcend national boundaries and to be of common importance for present and future generations of all humanity.” In other words, the World Heritage Convention seeks to protect the greatest places on Earth. These extraordinary sites are inscribed on the prestigious UNESCO World Heritage List.

Final judgment as to whether a site proposed by a national government (referred to as “States Parties” under the Convention) may be inscribed on the World Heritage List rests with the World Heritage Committee (“the Committee”). The Committee is the Convention’s decision-making body and is made up of twenty-one States Parties. The Committee also exercises oversight of existing World Heritage sites to ensure they are well-managed and have the capacity to maintain their Outstanding Universal Value for the benefit of future generations.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) serves as the technical advisor (“Advisory Body”) to the Convention. IUCN evaluates nominations for new natural and “mixed” (sites that are inscribed for both natural and cultural values) sites through its World Heritage Panel and issues its recommendations to the Committee. IUCN also monitors the good management of sites already inscribed on the World Heritage List and reports to the Committee regarding management concerns.

For more information, please see: and

Wild Heritage Executive Director Cyril Kormos serves on the World Heritage Panel ex officio as IUCN-WCPA Vice Chair for Wild Heritage and also chairs the IUCN-WCPA World Heritage Network: 

Why is the World Heritage Convention so critically important?

Protecting World Heritage sites is a key litmus test for the conservation community. If we cannot protect the greatest places on the planet, our chances of achieving conservation in the many other places around the world where conservation is needed are low. World Heritage is a litmus test we cannot afford to fail!

  • The Convention was adopted in 1972 in response to growing international concern that many extraordinary cultural and natural sites around the world were being damaged or destroyed.

  • The Convention has now been ratified by 191 countries, making it almost universally embraced.

  • The Convention protects many of the most iconic sites on the planet – e.g. Yellowstone, Yosemite, the Galapagos, the Serengeti, Lake Baikal, the Great Barrier Reef etc.

  • The Convention helps protect a vast area globally: natural and mixed sites total over 300 million hectares – almost the size of India.

  • The Convention has “teeth”. Once a site is inscribed on the World Heritage List, its management is elevated to a matter of international concern. The Convention, with IUCN’s independent expert advice, exercises oversight to help ensure World Heritage sites are well managed.

  • The prestige associated with World Heritage sites also helps protect them:World Heritage sites are more often featured in the media.

    • World Heritage sites attract tourism and donor funding. 

    • Civil society also monitors World Heritage sites closely. 

    • Governments value the prestige associated with World Heritage sites (and the added tourism and funding) which provides an incentive to ensure their good management.

    • The World Heritage Convention is the only international convention that recognizes the close, often inseparable links between natural and cultural values.

    • The World Heritage Convention is increasingly playing a key role in recognizing and helping to protect the rights of local communities and Indigenous Peoples.

    • The World Heritage Convention is well-adapted to landscape scale planning. World Heritage sites may be transboundary (e.g. Glacier Waterton International Peace Park or La Amistad International Park) or may in fact be clusters of sites (“serial sites”).

    • As a UN convention specifically focused on preserving heritage it has an obvious and strong link to youth around the world.


Has the World Heritage Convention been effective at protecting wilderness?

Yes! The World Heritage Convention has been a highly effective mechanism for protecting wilderness globally, on land and at sea.

  • World Heritage sites include the biggest protected areas on the planet, on land and at sea:

    • On land: Kluane / Wrangell-St Elias / Glacier Bay / Tatshenshini-Alsek between the US and Canada, almost 9 million hectares, Lake Baikal in Russia, just under 9 million hectares or the Air and Ténéré Natural Reserves in Niger, almost 8 million hectares.

    • At sea: the Phoenix Islands Protected Areas in Kiribati, over 40 million hectares, Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument in the US, over 36 million hectares or the Great Barrier Reef in Australia, over 34 million hectares.

  • Although there are only 247 natural and mixed World Heritage sites (as of 2018), these sites total over 300 million hectares, an area only slightly smaller than India and representing about 8% of the planet’s total protected area estate on land and sea!

  • 108 of the natural and mixed sites on the Word Heritage List were inscribed specifically on the basis of their wilderness values.

  • Many of these sites (e.g. Virunga, the Okavango Delta, Waterton Glacier International Peace Park, the Grand Canyon) have been better protected from industrial threats as a result of their World Heritage Status.


Presenting at the World Heritage Committee

Help restore degraded lands and manage wildland fires safely!

Help restore degraded lands and manage wildland fires safely!