Washington Natural Areas Program
Managing DNR's Natural Area Preserves and Natural Resources Conservation Areas
DNR’s Natural Areas Program manages the largest system of preserves and conservation areas in state ownership, protecting outstanding examples of Washington's natural heritage and safeguarding our native biodiversity. These state-owned natural area preserves (NAPs) and natural resources conservation areas (NRCAs) include some of the highest quality undisturbed ecosystems remaining in Washington, often protecting one of a kind features and rare plants or animals. The history, purpose, management and uses of each type of natural area are described in the links below.
History of the Natural Areas Program
During the 1970s and 1980s, citizens and scientists addressed the increasingly clear fact that a significant portion of our state's natural environment and native biodiversity was diminishing, disappearing or already gone. In 1972, visionary leaders worked with the Washington State Legislature to create a natural legacy for future generations of Washingtonians by establishing a system of state-owned, state-managed natural area preserves. As envisioned in the Natural Area Preserves Act (RCW 79.70), NAPs will forever protect the highest quality examples of native ecosystems and rare plant and animal species -- as well as other natural features of statewide and national significance. DNR-managed NAPs are dedicated in perpetuity for education, scientific research, and conservation of 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 primarily for conservation purposes. Natural resources conservation areas (RCW 79.71) include lands with a high priority for conservation that may be threatened with conversion to other land uses, and they include critical wildlife habitat, prime geological and scenic features, native ecological communities or environmentally significant ecosystems. NRCAs offer opportunities for outdoor environmental education, scientific research and appropriate low-impact public uses consistent with overall conservation goals. The four initial NRCAs designated by the Legislature are Cypress Island in Skagit County, Dishman Hills in Spokane County, Mount Si in King County and Woodard Bay in Thurston County; and others have been created since 1987 by DNR and the Commissioner of Public Lands.
Natural Area Preserves
Preserves protect the best remaining examples of many ecological communities including rare plant and animal habitat. The DNR Natural Heritage Program identifies 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 more than 37,000 acres in 55 sites 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 several large coastal preserves supporting high quality wetlands, salt marshes and forested buffers. Other westside habitats include mounded prairies, sphagnum bogs, natural late-successional forests and grassland balds.
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 protected features. Critical habitat is conserved in NRCAs for many plant and animal species, including rare species. NRCAs include coastal and high elevation forests, alpine lakes, wetlands, scenic vistas, nesting birds of prey, rocky headlands and high-quality native plant communities. Conservation areas also protect geologic, cultural, historical, and archeological sites. More than 114,000 acres are conserved in 36 Washington State NRCAs.
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 native plants, animals or ecological processes; identification of access opportunities within buffer areas; restoring native species and habitats, if necessary; and site protection issues, such as 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 preserve features. 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 guidance provided in the 1992 NRCA Statewide Management Plan. In addition to provisions for site protection and ecological management or restoration, NRCA plans summarize opportunities for low-impact public uses. Conservation features at each site are identified and evaluated prior to identifying potential areas for low-impact uses. Public involvement is a key component of the site management planning process.
Research on Natural Areas
Natural areas provide the highest quality opportunities for research and education by protecting relatively undisturbed native plant communities, wildlife habitat and populations of rare species. These species and communities serve as a baseline for comparison with managed or altered environments. Research conducted by colleges and universities contributes to the understanding of these native resources and may enhance restoration and management of altered ecosystems. All NAPs and NRCAs are available for research. Research proposals are reviewed and approved by regional land managers and Natural Areas Program ecologists. The department provides guidance for research use and monitors the activities of approved projects. Researchers share their data and reports with the department, and more recent projects are often posted to the DNR Natural Areas Program website.
Examples of recent research on NAPs and NRCAs include: a first-ever survey of lichens associated with Garry oak habitats in Washington, genetic sampling to assess the ability of plants to disperse to habitats that may develop under climate change, a study on the effects of invasive plants on the species composition of bee populations, and measurements of soil carbon levels in the Columbia Plateau ecoregion as part of a study to quantify soil health in relation to agricultural management. These and other research projects contribute to our understanding of Washington’s biodiversity and how to successfully conserve it into the future, as well as to the sustainable management of other natural resources, such as agricultural lands, recreational areas, and managed forest lands.
Organized Educational use
Natural areas are used as outdoor classrooms by educators at all levels, from primary school through college graduate studies. Permission for field trips is arranged through the nearest DNR region office. Field trips are usually self-guided, but DNR land managers, scientists or volunteer stewards are often available to speak or to lead a field trip. Educational resources and natural features reports are often available through the Natural Areas Program.
Environmental education is a key focus at a number of natural areas. For example, West Tiger Mountain NRCA in King County has a well-developed environmental education program and interpretive trails that are used extensively by nearby schools. Dishman Hills NRCA in Spokane County has high levels of environmental education use on its network of trails that meander through varied natural features and include an outdoor classroom gathering area. Mima Mounds NAP in Thurston County is an internationally popular educational site with a natural history interpretive center and trails among the mounded native prairie grassland. And Chehalis River Surge Plain NAP in Grays Harbor County offers a trail with interpretive signs along the “surge plain” wetland, plus an overwater viewpoint and gathering area.
Other popular group educational activities on DNR-managed natural areas are bird watching, native plant study, wetland study and geology field trips.
Other Public Access
NRCAs allow low-impact uses that do not negatively affect the conservation values of the sites. This may include hiking and related nature-appreciation uses as determined on a site by site basis with input from the surrounding community through the management planning process. Where conflicts with developed public access facilities can be avoided, back-country hunting is an allowed use in NRCAs, as well as fishing in open (navigable) waters of the state or at selectively stocked lakes that are monitored to avoid unacceptable impacts to native plants, animals and ecosystems.
NAPs, focused more on access for environmental education and research, do sometimes offer signed interpretive paths. In addition to Mima Mounds and Chehalis River Surge Plain, noted above, NAPs with educational trails include Selah Cliffs NAP in Yakima County, Columbia Hills NAP and Trout Lake NAP in Klickitat County, Cypress Highlands in Skagit County (on Cypress Island) and Kennedy Creek NAP in Mason County. Point Doughty NAP in San Juan County includes a small-craft water-access day use area. Public access opportunities for NAPs are assessed through the management planning process and are developed as land management staffing and project funding allow, with high priority afforded to protection of core NAP features from activities that can alter natural processes, introduce non-native invasive species, damage rare species or habitats, or compromise the value of the preserves as research sites.
Stewardship and Volunteers
Volunteers serve key roles as stewards for natural areas and as links to local communities. Volunteers are often needed for ecological restoration projects or maintenance of public access facilities. In addition to individual volunteers, organized volunteer groups include high school or college natural sciences classes, Puget Sound Corps, and Washington Conservation Corps. Volunteers help protect Washington’s biodiversity by routinely visiting natural areas as site stewards, in the process gaining a personal connection to these special places. Information on volunteering is available through the nearest DNR region office.
Student internships or research projects for college credit may be available, or can be developed to meet the needs of both the student and the DNR Natural Areas Program.
Protection and Acquisition
DNR-owned natural areas are acquired through gift or purchase from willing sellers at market value. When state school trust lands are transferred into natural area status, the trust is compensated for the market value of both the land and related resources. Most natural area preserves were initially identified, inventoried and proposed for protection by the Natural Heritage Program at DNR, with review by the program’s citizen advisory body, the Washington State Natural Heritage Advisory Council. Selection criteria for NRCAs are based on considerations established by the Legislature in the State of Washington Natural Resources Conservation Areas Act. Once a natural area has been identified, the DNR Natural Areas Program holds a public hearing in the local community to review the proposal and obtain public comment prior to a final boundary decision by the Commissioner of Public Lands.