Virginia Natural Heritage Program Celebrates 30 years

March 24, 2016 · 4 minute read
Editor’s note: This piece was written by the Department of Conservation and Recreation’s Public Relations Specialist Julie Buchanan.
In 1986, three scientists and their director began working to identify the natural places in Virginia most in need of conservation. They were using a new methodology that relied on knowing the precise locations of rare plants, animals and ecological communities, as well their rarity levels and threats.
Thus was born the Virginia Natural Heritage Program with what is now a widely used approach to conservation. The program was the 43rd state natural heritage program launched by The Nature Conservancy, under the direction of TNC’s Science Director Robert E. Jenkins, in partnership with the Commonwealth. Today, the program operates as a division of the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation.
Wreck Island Natural Area Preserve. Credit: DCR

Wreck Island Natural Area Preserve. Credit: DCR

“The success of Virginia’s program, in large part, has been due to the focus on mission, a high caliber and team approach by its scientists and natural resources specialists, and a reputation for science-based decision-making, as well as amazing partners across Virginia,” said Tom Smith, DCR Deputy Director of Operations and the program’s director from 1991 to 2016. “We have been extremely fortunate.”

Natural Heritage scientists collect, organize and share information that’s used to protect rare plants, animals, cave and karst features, and natural communities.
In 30 years, the staff has:
  • Discovered 36 species new to science and 313 species not previously found in Virginia.
  • Documented 8,820 locations of rare species and natural communities.
  • Established a growing 55,600-acre statewide system of natural area preserves.
  • Provided public access opportunities to natural area preserves for outdoor recreation and education.
  • Completed environmental reviews for nearly 59,000 development and land conservation projects.
The early days of the program were a testing ground, according to Michael Lipford, who in 1986 served as the program’s first director.
“We were under a two-year contract and reported to four different state agencies at the time,” said Lipford, who today serves as the director of the Virginia chapter of The Nature Conservancy. “It wasn’t guaranteed we would become an established program.”
Lipford recalls an early project that enabled the scientists to make their mark. They were asked to review a plan to spray for destructive gypsy moths — in an area where a rare butterfly, the frosted elfin, had been documented.
“Having the site-specific information about the frosted elfin was the key to making a recommendation that protected this rare butterfly and provided certainty to the project’s managers,” he said.
Crows Nest NAP. Credit: DCR

Crows Nest NAP. Credit: DCR

The Virginia Natural Heritage Program consists of five sections whose staff works collaboratively to collect and share conservation information:

  • Inventory
  • Information management
  • Environmental review
  • Natural area protection
  • Stewardship
“Everything we do — from surveying for natural communities and rare species, to managing our natural area preserves, to mapping and analysis, to reviewing development and conservation projects — it all starts with data,” said Jason Bulluck, the program’s information manager. “We’re continually strengthening this dataset and sharing it with partners to inform their land conservation and planning decisions.”
In February, the General Assembly recognized the program with a commending resolution.
“For 30 years, the staff of the Virginia Natural Heritage Program has provided an invaluable service to the public,” said Del. Terry Kilgore, patron of the resolution. “Their efforts are vital to conserving the plants, wildlife and natural areas, and providing outdoor recreation opportunities vital to the creative economy that makes our Commonwealth so special.”
The Hampton Roads Planning District Commission is one of many partners that has benefited from the program’s information and tools, specifically the Virginia Natural Landscape Assessment.
“The Virginia Natural Landscape Assessment was an integral component of two regional green infrastructure studies for Hampton Roads,”said Sara Kidd, senior regional planner for the planning district. “Our regional plans have since been incorporated by several localities into comprehensive plans, watershed plans and other studies. The Virginia Natural Heritage Program has contributed greatly to the protection of natural resources in Hampton Roads and throughout the state.”
The program’s influence extends beyond state boundaries, too. As a member of NatureServe, the staff collaborates with a global network of scientists dedicated to monitoring and understanding at-risk species and the threats they face. Virginia’s Natural Heritage Program has twice been recognized as the Outstanding Natural Heritage Program worldwide.
“The Virginia Natural Heritage Program’s achievements over the past 30 years are incredible,” said Mary Klein, president and CEO of NatureServe. “The program is a national leader in conserving the unique, natural character of our beautiful state. I am proud to work with them.”
What’s planned for 2016
Staff members are creating 30-second videos reflecting on their time in the program. Videos will be posted throughout the year on DCR’s YouTube channel. Public events at natural area preserves around the state are being planned for this fall. Details will be posted at
 Twitter users can follow updates at the hashtag #VANH30.