Washington Natural Areas Program
Managing DNR's Natural Area Preserves and Natural Resources Conservation Areas
The Natural Areas of Washington State protect outstanding examples of the state's extraordinary diversity. These lands represent the finest natural, undisturbed ecosystems in state ownership, often protecting one of a kind features which are unique to this region. Natural Resources Conservation Areas (NRCA) and Natural Areas Preserves (NAP) are the two types of natural areas managed by the Department of Natural Resources. The history, purpose, management and uses of each type of natural area are detailed in the links below.
History of the Natural Areas Program
Nearly 35 years ago, citizens and scientists were aware that much of our state's unique natural environment was disappearing or already gone. In 1972, visionary leaders looked to the future and created a legacy with the help of the Legislature, by establishing Washington's system of Natural Area Preserves. As envisioned by the Natural Areas Preserve Act, these preserves would forever protect the highest quality examples of native ecosystems and rare plant and animal species -- as well as other natural features of state, regional or national significance. They were to be used for education, scientific research, and to maintain Washington's native biological diversity.
In 1987, at the urging of the department and numerous conservation groups, the legislature created an additional state land designation for properties to be managed for conservation purposes. Properties in this category are called Natural Resources Conservation Areas (NRCAs). Lands with a high priority for conservation, critical wildlife habitat, prime natural features, examples of native ecological communities, and environmentally significant sites threatened with conversion to other uses were candidates for NRCA status. Opportunities for outdoor environmental education and appropriate low impact public use were to be additional considerations when designating an NRCA. The four original sites designated as NRCAs by the Legislature were Cypress Island in Skagit County, Dishman Hills in Spokane County, Mount Si in King County and Woodard Bay in Thurston County.
Natural Area Preserves
Preserves protect the best remaining examples of many ecological communities including rare plant and animal habitat. The Heritage program has identified the highest quality, most ecologically important sites for protection as natural area preserves. The resulting network of preserves represents a legacy for future generations and helps ensure that blueprints of the state's natural ecosystems are protected forever.
The preserve system presently includes nearly 31,000 acres in fifty-one sites distributed throughout the state. In eastern Washington, habitats protected on preserves include outstanding examples of arid land shrub-steppe, grasslands, vernal ponds, oak woodlands, subalpine meadows and forest, ponderosa pine forests, and rare plant habitats. Western Washington preserves include five large coastal preserves supporting high quality wetlands, salt marshes, and forested buffers. Other habitats include mounded prairies, sphagnum bogs, natural forest remnants, and grassland balds. Preserves range 8 acres to 3500 acres in size.
Natural Resources Conservation Areas
Conservation areas protect outstanding examples of native ecosystems, habitat for endangered, threatened and sensitive plants and animals, and scenic landscapes. Environmental education and low impact public use are appropriate on conservation areas where they do not impair the resource values of the area protected. The NRCA program was established by the Legislature in 1987, and represents an important protection alternative which complements the preserves and provides for a diverse natural areas program.
Habitats protected in NRCAs include coastal and high elevation forests, alpine lakes, wetlands, scenic vistas, nesting birds of prey, rocky headlands, and unique plant communities. Critical habitat is provided for many plant and animal species, including rare species. Conservation areas also protect geologic, cultural, historic, and archeological sites. Thirty-one sites total more than 88,000 acres of conservation areas in Washington.
Monitoring, Restoration and Management Activities
Management plans are developed for each natural area to guide action necessary for the protection of natural features. Management plans for NAPs address a range of activities including: prescribed burning to restore ecosystems dependent on fire; controlling invasive species that threaten the special features; boundary and interpretive signing; restoring native species if necessary; and fencing to prevent damage from domestic animals. Scientists and staff conduct ecological monitoring to track changes in natural features and evaluate the effectiveness of management activities. Periodic site visits by staff and volunteer stewards ensure protection of sensitive features on preserves. In general, NAPs are managed to allow natural processes to occur as much as possible with minimal human intervention.
Site management plans for NRCAs are prepared based on guidelines outlined in the 1992 NRCA Statewide Management Plan. Plans address protection, enhancement, and restoration of resources, as well as low impact public uses. Significant resources at each site are identified and evaluated prior to identifying potential areas for low impact public use. Public involvement is key in management plan development.
Research, Educational Use, and Public Access
Natural areas provide unique opportunities for research and education by protecting relatively undisturbed native communities, wildlife habitat, and populations of rare plants. These communities serve as a baseline for comparison with managed or altered environments. Research conducted by colleges and universities contributes to the understanding of these resources and may enhance restoration and management of altered ecosystems. All NAPs and NRCAs are available for research. Proposals are submitted on research applications and approved by regional managers and natural areas program scientists. The department provides guidance to the researchers and monitors research projects as they are conducted. Research data and reports generated by researchers are shared with the department.
Examples of research on NAPs include the study of rare frog reproduction at Trout Lake NAP; soil deposition and wind erosion studies at Kahlotus NAP, a natural grassland surrounded by agricultural lands; and research on great earthquakes and tsunamis on the coastal salt marshes, the Bone and Niawiakum Rivers NAPs. These research projects have provided critical information for amphibian conservation, understanding erosion processes, and in alerting coastal communities to the serious risk of tsunamis.
Research on NRCAs includes peregrine falcon monitoring with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife on Mount Si NRCA in King County, which resulted in the discovery of a nesting site that produced three fledglings. For the past six years, the South Nemah NRCA in Pacific County has served as the primary training site for all inland marbled murrelet work carried out in Washington. The skills that biologists learn at the Nemah NRCA are applied to marbled murrelet research, monitoring, and inventory programs throughout the murrelet's Washington range.
Natural areas are used as outdoor classrooms by all educational levels, from primary school through college graduate studies. Permission for field trips is arranged through the nearest Region office. Such trips are usually self-guided, but program staff, scientists, or volunteer stewards are often available to speak or lead a field trip. Educational resources and natural features reports are available through the natural areas program. The NRCA program emphasizes environmental education at a number of sites. West Tiger Mountain NRCA (King County) has a well developed environmental education program and interpretive trails and is used extensively by nearby schools. Dishman Hills NRCA (Spokane County) also has high levels of environmental education use, and has a network of trails.
Organizations and groups also use the sites for bird watching, native plant study, wetland study, geology field trips, and other natural history pursuits. Mima Mounds NAP, a popular educational site, has an interpretive shelter, and trails which wind through the mounded native prairie grassland.
Other Public Access
NRCAs allow low impact uses that do not negatively affect special features of the sites. This may include hiking and other uses, and is determined on a site by site basis with input from the surrounding community as management plans are developed.
Natural area preserves are open primarily for education and research. Interpretive paths are found at Mima Mounds and the Chehalis River Surge Plain NAPs. Pedestrian access on a primitive road is available for walking at Columbia Hills NAP. More intensive human use of the preserves can alter natural processes, introduce weeds, damage rare species, and compromise the value of the areas as research sites.
Stewardship and Volunteers
Volunteers serve a key role as stewards for natural areas and as links to local communities. Large groups are often needed for restoration and trail building projects. Individuals serve as site stewards, interpreters, data collectors, or help in the office. Volunteers help in the protection of biodiversity and often gain a personal connection to these special places. Information on volunteering is available through the nearest DNR Region office.
Student internships for college credit may be available, or can be developed to meet the needs of both the student and the natural areas program.
Protection and Acquisition
Natural Areas are acquired through gift or purchase from a willing seller. Fair market value is paid for those state school trust lands transferred to natural area status. Most of the natural area preserves were initially identified, inventoried and proposed for protection by the Washington Natural Heritage Program.
Selection criteria for NRCAs are based on considerations established by the legislature in the NRCA Act, including scenic and ecological values. Once an NRCA site has been nominated and approved, a public hearing is held to obtain public comment on a proposed boundary. The final boundary is approved by the Commissioner of Public Lands.