Earlier this week, the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation announced the dedication of land comprising Virginia’s sixty-second natural area preserve, known as the Dundas Granite Flatrock Natural Area Preserve. The approximately 11-acre parcel of land is located in northwestern Brunswick County near Fort Pickett. The natural area preserve is distinguished by massive outcroppings of solid granite which occur far from Virginia’s mountains. The natural area preserve was officially dedicated in late January.
The full press release, which ran in the Richmond Times-Dispatch under the headline, “Rare, rocky site in Brunswick becomes state natural area,” is generally thorough, and I encourage you to read it. (A short summary of the press release also ran on the AP wire.) Many people, however, are not familiar with Virginia’s system of natural area preserves, so let’s explore what they are in greater depth.
What Is a Natural Area Preserve?
The Natural Area Preserves (NAP) System was authorized by the Virginia Natural Area Preserves Act in 1989. The official website for the Natural Area Preserves System indicates that 55,372 acres of land have been placed into the NAP program in the twenty-six years since that time.
But what exactly qualifies as a “natural area preserve”? A “natural area preserve” is defined as being a “natural area” that has been formally dedicated under the procedures set forth in the Virginia Natural Area Preserves Act. A “natural area,” in turn, is defined in Section 10.1-209 of the Code of Virginia as follows:
“Natural area” means any area of land, water, or both land and water, whether publicly or privately owned, that retains or has reestablished its natural character, though it need not be completely natural and undisturbed; or which is important in preserving rare or vanishing flora, fauna, native ecological systems, geological, natural historical, scenic or similar features of scientific or educational value benefiting the citizens of the Commonwealth.
Each natural area preserve is required to be “managed in a manner consistent with continued preservation of the natural heritage resources it supports” under Section 10.1-214 of the Code of Virginia. “Natural heritage resources,” in turn, are defined in Section 10.1-209 of the Code of Virginia as being “the habitat of rare, threatened, or endangered plant and animal species, rare or state significant natural communities or geologic sites, and similar features of scientific interest benefiting the welfare of the citizens of the Commonwealth.”
Thus, in its broadest sense, a “natural area preserve” is state-designated land having some sort of unique natural feature that is managed so as to protect that unique feature.
This differs somewhat from the purpose of the Virginia State Parks, which, as Section 10.1-201 of the Code of Virginia notes, are intended to be lands “of scenic beauty, recreational utility, historical interest, biological significance or any other unusual features which … should be acquired, preserved and maintained for the use, observation, education, health and pleasure of the people of Virginia.” Note the greater emphasis on providing public access.
By contrast, Section 10.1-213 of the Code of Virginia indicates that a natural area preserve may, but need not, be made open to the public. This gives the Natural Area Preserves System a bit more flexibility than the State Parks System, as some landowners might wish to protect some unique feature of their property without inviting all and sundry onto their property.
How Is a Property Accepted into the Natural Area Preserves System?
Generally, a property may be dedicated as a natural area preserve by either conveying land outright to the Commonwealth or by conveying a conservation easement to the Commonwealth (and retaining individual ownership in the land). A conservation easement is a method of restricting development of a piece of land forever. Because of the rarity of the features that natural area preserves are intended to protect, conservation easements conveyed for the dedication of a natural area preserve tend to be among the most restrictive of conservation easements. Natural area preserves are typically intended to be maintained in their natural state with little or no evidence of human activity. A natural area preserve may be dedicated through donation—with all the usual attendant tax benefits—or by purchase.
The standards for acceptance into the NAP program are fairly stringent. If you do the math from the statistics that I listed earlier, you will see that, historically, only two or three natural area preserves have been created each year on average. You will also see that each natural area preserve averages 893 acres in size. However, much smaller properties are acceptable if they are sufficiently unique. The Dundas Granite Flatrock Natural Area Preserve itself contains only about 11 acres.
Thus, most properties will not qualify to be dedicated as part of the Natural Area Preserves System. Additionally, most landowners will not be willing to give up the level of development rights required for dedication of their property as a natural area preserve; these landowners might be better served by considering the donation of a less-restrictive conservation easement on their property. However, if you own a property with some extraordinary, unique feature, and if you are maintaining the property essentially as a nature preserve already and want the property to stay that way forever, then dedicating your property as a natural area preserve might be an option worth considering.