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Natural Heritage Program - Stewardship Section

Conservation of natural areas does not end with land protection. After DCR acquires and/or dedicates natural areas of statewide significance, these areas are then actively managed to retain and enhance conservation values. Natural area stewardship is the long-term management of land and water to sustain natural heritage resources. The primary goals are (1) to restore and enhance habitat conditions suitable for rare species, and (2) to sustain the inherent biodiversity and beauty of natural communities. 

The Natural Heritage Program’s Stewardship section focuses on maintaining the natural values of land areas and waterways to conserve biological diversity, both by managing state-owned lands as well as by advising public and private landowners about techniques for managing natural areas. The program's approach to natural area stewardship is summarized in the Natural Area Management Guidelines. 

Stewardship of dedicated natural area preserves in Virginia consists of six major components:

I . Management Planning. Natural Area Preserve Management Plans are developed to guide stewardship by establishing management goals for dedicated natural areas and formulating methods by which those
goals will be achieved and management successs measured. Plans include a wide array of
supporting information and developed strategies for long-term protection, maintenance
and enhancement of natural heritage resources supported on natural area preserves.

II. Biological Resource Management.
Management actions are taken to return human altered land or vegetation to a condition that  supports continued existence of rare species and/or natural communities by reinstating
required processes or abating stresses. The primary objective is to restore ecosystem functions and maintain or enhance environmental conditions required to perpetuate rare species and natural communities. By taking actions such as invasive species control or restoring natural hydrology, natural area stewards can improve habitat conditions for rare species and maintain the integrity (composition and structure) of natural communities.

III. Operations Management.
Site operations are a crucial aspect of natural areas stewardship.
Especially on public lands, some recreational uses are compatible with the primary natural heritage resource management objectives while others are not. Natural area stewards design and maintain infrastructure such as trails, signs and observation areas in order to provide high quality visitor experiences while protecting natural heritage resources from adverse human effects. Routine management activities include boundary line and access road maintenance, site security, visitor safety and law enforcement. These actions all fall under the operations component of natural area stewardship.

IV. Fire Management. Prescribed burning is a specialized management activity that is essential
in natural areas supporting occurrences of fire-maintained natural heritage resources. Prescribed fire is needed to perpetuate many species and communities that depend on fire but have become rare. Species rarity is often attributable to the fact that natural fire has been mostly eliminated as a landscape process by effective wildfire suppression and prevention programs. Prescribed fire is a unique component of stewardship, requiring expertise in biology, fire ecology and fire operations to safely and effectively mimic the process of natural fire under highly controlled conditions. 

V. Research. Research to improve understanding of natural history, biology and population dynamics of rare species and ecosystem functions is needed for sound and defensible management planning. Scientific studies are conducted in-house or sponsored through funding support in order to inform stewardship decisions and actions. 

VI. Monitoring. Natural area stewards use a variety of monitoring techniques to assess change in natural community composition and rare species population status. Monitoring can determine if natural processes essential to natural heritage resource health are occurring and whether or not management actions have been effective. Monitoring is also used to document and measure the effects of human activity on natural heritage resources protected within natural areas.

See our website for more information on the stewardship section.

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