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Natural Heritage Program - Natural Area Protection Section

Natural area protection staff select and implement strategies to protect the conservation sites identified through the inventory process. Natural area protection requires an understanding of the many factors that may affect the quality of a site, landowner attitudes and interests, which resource protection tools would be most appropriate and what may be accomplished with the resources available. The staff’s primary responsibilities encompass three distinct roles: 

  1. natural area conservation planning
  2. natural area protection using a variety of tools
  3. cave and karst protection

Natural area conservation planning begins by gathering information about the site, including natural heritage resources, geology, hydrology, landscape features, ecological processes, threats, and economic and social factors influencing the site. After information is gathered and analyses are completed, site conservation boundaries are delineated. These boundaries are not regulatory zones or acquisition areas, but they guide protection and stewardship activities for natural areas and the natural heritage resources that they support. Conservation boundaries encompass areas within which land protection or landowner contacts are recommended.

They may also address management needs such as areas required for the safe implementation of prescribed burns. The ultimate goal of natural area protection is to secure habitats of natural heritage resources. The planning process guides the protection staff in determining which protection tools are most appropriate for a site. The most commonly used tools are:

  • The Virginia Registry of Natural Areas, which encourages voluntary preservation of important natural lands in private and public ownership. This is a non-binding, nonregulatory program designed to recognize property owners who act voluntarily to safeguard natural areas.
  • Administrative designations on federal lands such as special interest area, special management area and research natural area.
  • Conservation easements, which allow landowners to protect land in perpetuity while retaining ownership. With a conservation easement, the landowner sells or donates certain rights for future land use. Easements are recorded on the deed and often landowners can benefit through local, state and federal tax incentives. The landowner retains rights to use the land in ways compatible with conservation goals.
  • Natural area dedication as a state natural area preserve, which is the strongest protection tool available for natural areas, and involves the recording of a legally binding deed of dedication stating the intended use, management and development of the property. Dedicated natural area preserves may be owned by the Department of Conservation and Recreation, other state agencies, local governments, conservation organizations and private landowners.

The Natural Area Protection section, in addition to pursuing the protection of natural areas in general, plays an active role in protecting Virginia’s karst areas. Karst is a landscape characterized by sinkholes, sinking streams, springs and caves that have formed in areas where mildly acidic groundwater has dissolved soluble rocks such as limestone. Virginia is rich in cave and karst resources, with more than 4000 known caves, located primarily west of the Blue Ridge Mountains. More than 150 cave organisms are tracked by the Virginia Natural Heritage Program due to their rarity – many are found in only one or two caves. Because of the abundance of karst areas in western Virginia, their importance as drinking water supplies, their sensitivity to environmental disturbance and their exceptional ecological diversity, karst areas warrant focused protection and pollution prevention efforts. The Virginia Natural Heritage Program is actively involved in the following cave and karst area protection initiatives:

  • Karst Groundwater Protection Program plays a leading role in cave and karst area education, monitoring and management in western Virginia. The program has developed forestry Best Management Practices (BMPs) for groundwater protection, BMPs for storm water management on karst areas and recommendations for preserve design in karst landscapes. In cooperation with other conservation organizations, the program has cleaned up of sinkhole dumps. The program also hosts training workshops and educational field trips. Program staff assist with project review and provide technical support to DCR’s soil and water conservation division and other government agencies involved in groundwater protection and karst-related conservation issues.
  • Project Underground is a national environmental education program on cave and karst resources. Project Underground provides lesson plans, games and hands-on projects to teach students in kindergarten through high school about caves and karst ecology. The program is available through training workshops for teachers who wish to incorporate karst concepts into their curriculum. The Project Underground addresses many Standards of Learning across all grade levels.
  • The Virginia Cave Board, a collegial body of DCR, was established in 1979 to conserve and protect caves and karst lands of the Commonwealth and to advocate for the wise use of these resources. Eleven members of the 12-member board are appointed by the governor for four-year terms and are selected for their activity and knowledge in the conservation, exploration, study and management of caves. The Virginia Cave Board serves Virginia by advising agencies and private landowners on cave and karst-related matters, providing cave management expertise, preparing and presenting educational material, identifying significant caves, and recommending conservation and preservation measures for cave resources within the Commonwealth.

See our website for more information on the natural area protection section.

Natural Area Preserves System

  • Natural Area Preserves

    Natural area protection staff select and implement strategies to protect the conservation sites identified through the inventory process.

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