Six months before UNESCO's World Heritage Committee meets in Bonn, Germany to consider adding the Spanish Missions and Alamo to its list of unique cultural places and properties, the long-sought expansion of San Antonio Missions National Historic Park is finally becoming a reality.
A bill first sponsored in 2010 by then-U.S. Rep. Ciro Rodriguez and later carried by U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett, whose Congressional district extends from Austin south to the San Antonio Missions, was signed into law by Pres. Obama on Friday, Dec. 19, nearly 18 months after the bill first passed the House in June 2013. Doggett finally succeeded by getting the San Antonio Missions & National Historical Park Boundary Expansion Act attached to the 2015 National Defense Authorization Bill, which was passed by the U.S. Senate on Dec. 12.
"The way the Senate is operating these days, it never would have come up for consideration if we hadn't been able to get it attached to the National Defense Authorization bill," Doggett said. "If this hadn't happened it was never going to pass."
As it was, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) objected to expansion of federal parklands being added and voted against the defense spending bill.
Local officials could be cutting the ribbon on the 137-acre expansion of the park by late next spring, just as the International Committee on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS) issues its formal recommendation on the nomination. A World Heritage site evaluator visited the missions and the park in September. A delegation of San Antonians who have worked on the application were in Washington D.C. for an ICOMOS dinner the same evening the bill passed the Senate, Doggett said.
"This was a real Merry Christmas that came early," Doggett said. "People were starting to say this was never going to get done, but fortunately it finally worked out. The bill was first introduced by Ciro Rodriguez, so he deserves a lot of the credit.
"There will be a process now, an exchange of deeds that should take about six months," Doggett said. "I think this really will help us (in Bonn) because it's an indication that all levels of government are involved and committed to protecting as much property as possible around the missions. The only thing that could hamper our efforts is the non-payment of UNESCO dues."
The United States has withheld payment of dues to UNESCO (United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization) for more than two years, based on a law prohibiting funding of any United Nations branch admitting Palestine as a full member.
There are 1,007 World Heritage sites around the world, only 22 of which are located in the United States. The majority of the U.S. sites are national and state parks or Native American dwellings or burial sites. The Spanish colonial missions here would be the only non-indigenous World Heritage site edifices west of the Mississippi, although Native Americans provided much of the labor to build the missions.
The park expansion will come from land now owned by the San Antonio River Authority, the City of San Antonio and Bexar County, and will give park officials a more complete authority over lands around Missions San José, San Juan and Espada, all of which have undergone extensive renovation and restoration work managed and paid for by the Archdiocese of San Antonio, largely through funds raised by Fr. David Garcia. The park's added acreage also will allow for expansion of the demonstration labores, or Mission-era farmlands, that park officials have established outside Mission San Juan.
"A lot of people in San Antonio have worked hard for quite a few years to make this possible," Doggett said. "It's a good feeling to see it finally happen and to know what could develop now with the World Heritage site decision next year."
*Featured/top image: Mission Espada, one of the five San Antonio missions nominated for the World Heritage List is currently undergoing restoration work. Photo by Carol Baass Sowa.