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NATURAL HERITAGE

An Overview of the Virginia Natural Heritage Program

The mission of the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR) is to conserve Virginia's natural and recreational resources. DCR supports a variety of environmental programs organized within six areas (Administration, Natural Heritage, Planning and Recreation Resources, Stormwater Management, State Parks, and Dam Safety and Floodplain Management) and numerous policy and/or advisory boards including the Board of Conservation and Recreation, Virginia Cave Board, Board on Conservation and Development of Public Beaches, and the Virginia Soil and Water Conservation Board).

The Natural Heritage Program's (DCR-DNH) mission is conserving Virginia's biodiversity through inventory, protection, and stewardship. The Virginia Natural Area Preserves Act, 10.1-209 through 217 of the Code of Virginia, was passed in 1989 and codified DCR's powers and duties related to statewide biological inventory: maintaining a statewide database for conservation planning and project review, land protection for the conservation of biodiversity, and the protection and ecological management of natural heritage resources (the habitats of rare, threatened, and endangered species, significant natural communities, geologic sites, and other natural features). DCR-DNH represents the first comprehensive attempt to identify the most significant natural areas in the Commonwealth through an intensive statewide inventory of plants, animals, natural communities, and other features that are exemplary, rare, or endangered on a global or statewide basis. DCR-DNH consists of five major sections: Natural Heritage Inventory, Information Management, Environmental Review, Natural Area Protection, and Stewardship.

The inventory has identified over 2400 conservation sites consisting of one or more rare species and exemplary natural communities. Inventories are conducted statewide for the rarest species and natural communities, as well as regional projects designed to locate all natural areas on the Appalachian Trail, National Parks, and Department of Defense lands.

The Virginia Natural Heritage Program is part of NatureServe, an international network of Natural Heritage programs and Conservation Data Centres spanning all 50 states, Canada and 13 countries in Latin America. The network's consistent methodology allows information to be readily shared and compared for purposes of establishing conservation priorities across state and national boundaries. It ranks the rarity of species and other elements of biodiversity on a five-point scale based on rareness. Rank is determined on both a global (range-wide) and a state (state-wide) basis. DCR's Biotics 4 datasystem represents a permanent atlas and database on the existence, characteristics, numbers, condition, status, location, and distribution of the occurrences of Virginia's natural and biological diversity. Biotics 4 tracks site specific data on over 9,000 locations for some 1600 of Virginia's rare species, communities and ecosystems.

The Partners in Conservation Fund, a cooperative effort between DCR and The Nature Conservancy, set in motion the acquisition of biologically significant natural areas identified by the Natural Heritage Program, and the creation of a Natural Area Preserves System. This was the first state land protection program specifically designed to conserve and manage Virginia's rare, threatened and endangered biological resources. The importance of protecting these biologically significant sites was endorsed by overwhelming support of the voters in the passage of the 1992 Park and Recreational Facilities Bond, which provided $11.475 million to buy at least ten additional Natural Area Preserves. The similary supported 2002 Park and Natural Areas Bond provided an additional $20 million for natural area preserve acquisitions.

The Natural Area Protection component of DCR utilizes a number of tools for the protection of biodiversity, among which are dedication of natural areas into a legally established system of state natural area preserves, acquisition of land, acquisition of conservation easements and other partial interests, establishment of management agreements, and registry of natural areas. Priorities for protection result from the inventory and subsequent site ranking system developed by DCR-DNH.

Dedication of properties as Natural Area Preserves can be accomplished through the voluntary act of a landowner and provides strong statutory protection against conversion to alternate uses. Acquisition of Natural Area Preserves is often pursued with state appropriated or bond funds, federal grants, or donations to the Natural Area Preservation Fund and the Open Space Recreation and Conservation Fund, the latter consisting of revenues derived from voluntary contributions through a state income tax check-off. Sixty one properties encompassing over 54,000 acres now comprise the Virginia Natural Area Preserves System.

Natural area conservation does not end with land protection. The Natural Area Preserve System safeguards many critically rare species and irreplaceable natural ecosystems. Stewardship, or land management, ensures the continued existence and enhancement of significant natural areas and natural heritage resources through careful monitoring, scientifically based ecological studies, and prescribed management actions. The Stewardship Program offers its technical expertise in natural area management to a wide range of clients including federal, state and local agencies, private landowners and land managers.

To ensure a rich and healthy environment for our citizens, the Department of Conservation and Recreation is dedicated to the conservation of Virginia's natural communities, rare, threatened and endangered species and natural areas. DCR will continue to strive to build its network of volunteers and cooperators, enhance its educational programs, and further its inventory, data management, protection, and ecological management programs to ensure Virginia's safe economic growth and the conservation of its rich natural heritage.