Mistaken Point world heritage bid may need bigger backing

The campaign to have a site known for some of the planet's oldest fossils declared a world heritage site may need more financial support to succeed, an organizer says.

The campaign to have an eastern Newfoundland place known for some of the planet's oldest fossils declared a world heritage site may need more financial support to succeed, an organizer says.

Fossils in the rocks at the Mistaken Point Ecological Reserve. (Alex Liu/Oxford University)

Mistaken Point, on the south coast of Newfoundland's Avalon Peninsula, draws visitors from around the world, although conservationists have long worried that fossils have been chipped out of the rocks.

Geologist Richard Thomas, who is responsible for researching and writing the application on behalf of the provincial government, said the effort to have Mistaken Point declared a UNESCO world heritage site is extensive.

What makes the site worthy of consideration are the fossils embedded in the stone. They are fossils of some of the oldest creatures on earth, and date back more than 540 million years, when all life only existed in the sea.

Thomas said the site is remarkable, but there is a lot of work to be done before the application is submitted in 2014.

"It’s an incredibly complicated project," he said from his office at Mistaken Point. Thomas said one dossier submitted from a site in Manitoba was more than 4,000 pages long. Another, from Nova Scotia, he said, was more than 1,400 pages long.

Thomas said there are about 40 sites with similar fossil significance that will be competing against with Mistaken Point. One of the keys he said will be proving that the fossils show a pivotal moment in evolutionary history.

"I wish we could just sign it up. The competition is very tough," he said.

A difficult problem

"It's a very difficult problem. Imagine if I said to you, what site best represents the world's biodiversity today? How on earth would you do that?"

A rangeomorph fossil within a strat of rock known as the E-Surface in Mistaken Point. (Jack Matthews/Oxford University/Journal of the Geological Society)

Thomas said the government has shown political interest in the bid, sending government ministers to the site this spring.  But if the province is serious about getting the special status, financial support must follow.

"You can't go for world heritage or manage world heritage on the cheap."

He says Nova Scotia gave $600,000 towards its recent and successful bid of Grand Pré. He said part of the success can be attributed to the fact the government also guaranteed money to help maintain the site for 10 years if selected.

At stake in this province, said Thomas, are huge economic rewards for the surrounding communities.

In an email to CBC News, the government said resources are being directed toward the bid, but the amount isn't readily available.

'Economic shot in the arm'

"I’m sure the importance of world heritage is not lost on the government, particularly the tourism aspect of it. We hope if we can world heritage site status it will be a real economic shot in the arm for the southern shore."

Thomas said a world heritage community liaison has been hired to meet with southern shore communities with an interest in the bid.

If Mistaken Point is chosen to become a world heritage site, it will be the first UNESCO site run by the province, and the first site on the eastern side of the island. Gros Morne and L'anse aux Meadows are run by Parks Canada.

"It’s very important for Newfoundlanders and Labradorians because gaining a world heritage site is very prestigious and you get a lot of international attention."