A Well-Kept Public Secret: Olympic National Park a Unesco World Heritage Site and International Biosphere Reserve by Diana Somerville

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Photo courtesy of Aramark, www.olympicnationalparks.com

Thousands and thousands of visitors flock from around the world to Olympic National Park. Many know it is not only a part of our justly famous system of national parks but also the only UNESCO World Heritage Site in Washington. Also, it is the only International Biosphere Reserve. How many of us living on the Olympic Peninsula realize we’re hiking in, or gazing at a world-class treasure?


The United States holds only 31 designated World Heritage Sites – which puts Olympic National Park in the same league as the Statue of Liberty, the Grand Canyon and the Egyptian pyramids in ancient Thebes.

Olympic National Park’s designation as a World Heritage Site came about at the Second World Conference on National Parks, according to Roger Contor, then the head of Olympic National Park and the secretary general of the world conference held at Yellowstone National Park in 1972.

There were fewer than a hundred nations and only around 90 parks and cultural sites” at the time, Cantor recalled. The enthusiastic group included researchers from the world’s parks, rangers, scientists, and other creative visionaries. Recognizing the global importance of preserving these irreplaceable treasures, they created “a world class register,” he said.

The list has grown to include 197 of the world’s natural wonders and 779 sites of international cultural value. Being chosen as a World Heritage site is now a long process involving UNESCO member nations.

The UNESCO designation “doesn’t come with any money attached or any powers of enforcement,” Contor explained. “It’s about prestige and recognition.” Most countries are very proud of their World Heritage sites, and link them to increased tourism.


Olympic National Park’s designation as an International Biosphere Reserve followed. “At another world conference on parks, the biosphere reserve effort was led by Switzerland-based IUCN, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature,” Contor said.

International prestige comes with being named a Biosphere Reserve. Theoretically the status creates an opportunity for increasing international visitors, especially among “ecotourists” who plan their vacations around visiting these specially- designated areas around the world.


It’s an added layer of protection” for the complex ecosystem of plants and animals, climate and geography that make Olympic National Park unique, Contor said. Although “it didn’t change the management philosophy of the Park” which has focused on protecting all wildlife.

Well and truly retired after 30 years with the Park Service, Roger Contor is now a Port Townsend resident and continues to enjoy living close to nature as he approaches age 85.

Protected forests, marine sanctuaries and national parks are not zoos, not just places to see nature,” New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman wrote, reporting from the most recent World Parks Congress in Sydney Australia. “They are the basic life support systems” that provide the clean air and water, food, fisheries, stable temperatures and the natural coastal protections that sustain us and our human communities.


Local Olympic National Park visitors remain largely unaware of its international significance. Few realize they have an opportunity to meet eco-tourists from around the world, many of whom have visits to UNESCO sites on their “bucket lists.”


At the ONP Visitors Center, the Park’s listing as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and International Biosphere Reserve is the last item mentioned on a fact sheet titled “European and Euro-American History” that’s tucked away beneath the information desk. Ask for one next time you’re visiting.

The National Park Service Website doesn’t mention this international distinction or news of the Elwha dam removal. The “European and Euro-American History” handout has been posted and can be found by searching.

In an interesting twist, the Website of the company that runs the resort, Aramark, makes no distinction between Olympic National Park and the National Forest: www.olympicnationalparks.com,


Howard Sprouse is among those who believe that the UNESCO World Heritage Site designation may hold a key to preserving both the Park and the Olympics from becoming an Electromagnetic Warfare training range.

Sprouse, a local scientist and entrepreneur who spent his young adult years as a national park employee and a forest worker on the “West End of the Olympic Peninsula,” wrote to UNESCO to notify them of the military’s plan.

He also started a petition at the “We the People” site at the White House to oppose this action.  http://wh.gov/i1mye 

It needs 100,000 signatures to be entered into the response category at the Whitehouse,” he notes. “If you care about our national parks, world heritage, the quality of life, and oppose the militarization of the Olympics, here is your chance to step up to the plate. Sign this petition and share it broadly.”

We are privileged to enjoy the rich diversity of Olympic National Park and national forests in our back yard. Not every community has the opportunity to be guardians of a global treasure.


  1. R2

    And you expect the U.S., which rolled tanks over Babylon, and bombed the Cradle of Civilization back to the Stone Age to respect “World Heritage”? Bwahahaha!

  2. Nadia Seymour

    Thank you for bringing this fact to local attention. So often, we don’t appreciate what we have until it is gone. Having the area turned into a warfare weapons testing ground is just another example of the short-sighted decision making that has become all too common now.

    Let us remember that the US is the number one seller of weapons in the world. That weapons manufacturers like Lockheed Martin and Raytheon need to test their systems first, then prove their abilities in skirmishes around the world. It is well documented that after these weapons are proven in combat, sales to countries around the world increase dramatically.

    Here, we risk losing the biggest source of economic activity in the region, as word spreads to people planning their vacations in the coming year, and deciding that hiking in a weapons testing range isn’t what they want to do on their vacations.

    Visiting a world treasure has much more appeal.


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