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Natural Areas Stewardship

Natural areas encompass a wide range of environments and support a rich diversity of plant and animal species. Natural areas stewardship is the long-term management of land and water to sustain natural heritage resources, restore and enhance habitat conditions suitable for rare species, and sustain the inherent biodiversity and beauty of natural communities. DCR acquires, dedicates, and manages natural areas of statewide significance through the Natural Area Preserve System. In addition, DCR advises other public and private landowners about techniques and methods for managing natural areas. The Natural Heritage Stewardship Section focuses on maintaining and enhancing the natural values of land areas and waterways to conserve biological diversity. Stewardship of dedicated Natural Area Preserves in Virginia consists of six major components.

  • 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 success is to be 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.
  • 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.
  • 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 areas 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 such as boundary line and access road maintenance, site security, visitor safety, and law enforcement all fall under the operations component of natural areas stewardship.
  • 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. Their rarity is due to the fact that natural fire has been mostly eliminated as a landscape process by effective wildfire suppression and prevention programs. Prescribed burn management is a unique component of stewardship, requiring expertise in biology, ecology, and fire operations to safely and effectively mimic the process of natural fire under controlled conditions.
  • 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. A Research and Collecting permit is required for these studies when they occur on Natural Area Preserves. Click here for a PDF of the permit application. The free Adobe Reader is needed for this form.
  • Monitoring. A wide variety of monitoring techniques are used 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 needed to document effects of human visitation and public use patterns on natural heritage resources and other natural features protected within natural areas.

Click to see the staff of the Natural Areas Stewardship section.