It all begs the question, why seek World Heritage status? In many cases the reasons are economic, since World Heritage Sites attract more tourists. That’s not true for Papahanaumokuakea, where visitors are permitted only on Midway, in very small numbers. So why seek inscription? “It’s part of the United States’ broader interest in conservation,” Putnam says. “By putting forward our sites as part of the global community, we acknowledge that the world has an interest in their preservation. Just as we care what happens to the Great Barrier Reef or the Galapagos or the pyramids of Egypt.” In other words, inscription as a World Heritage Site is an old-fashioned moral statement—that some places are worth saving for their own sake.
With world heritage status comes greater protection -- and greater recognition -- for this natural and cultural wonder. Papahanaumokuakea stands among other World Heritage Sites like the pyramids of Giza, the Galapagos Islands and Machu Piccu as one of the world's treasures. But unlike other World Heritage Sites, few will ever see it. As the traces of human visitation decay into the landscape, like this shipwreck on Laysan, it will remain a true wilderness.
For Wilhelm, World Heritage status is also a powerful symbol. “What does it mean?” she asks. “Why are we doing this? We really challenged ourselves to try to answer that. Certainly, if we didn’t get inscribed, it was never to going to change how sacred this place is to us as Native Hawaiians. But it is in many ways a prestigious thing to be considered among the World Heritage giants—to be next to Mount Kilimanjaro and Machu Picchu, the Grand Canyon and the pyramids of Egypt. It’s also exciting to know that our inscription would further the global understanding of indigenous cultures, particularly those closely and inextricably linked to the sea. That’s a really important gift that I think the Pacific has to give to our collective world heritage.”
Like Putnam, Aila points out there also practical advantages to World Heritage status. “One,” he says, “is that the federal government now has to pay more attention to that area in terms of funding, in terms of security and in terms of management. Here we have this jewel; we can’t just ignore it. Also, the state government, because it was a very strong partner in the designation process, has to apply more resources to the day-to-day management of this area. And as Native Hawaiians we also have more responsibility to the preservation of culture in Papahanaumokuakea.”
The real value of World Heritage status is perhaps in this: that it helps restore a reverence, a sense of the sacredness of place. Aila tells how a recent visit to the monument reminded him of the connections between nature and culture, the spiritual and the mundane, the past and the present: “Sleeping on Mokumanamana, looking up at the sky, seeing the Milky Way at about 3 in the morning, seeing the exact same sky that those folks who built these sites saw, listening to the same symphony of birds, feeling the same insects crawl over us in the night … That was very powerful.
“Some of the folks in the group,” he says, “heard voices on the wind.”