Steve Carter-Lovejoy is the natural heritage information manager for the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation.

Monday, 2 Dec 2002

RICHMOND, Va.

Hello, I’m from the government, and I’m here to help you. No, really! I’m a faithful reader of Grist’s diary feature, but I’ve never seen an entry by a “typical” employee of a state or federal environmental agency. I’m glad to have a chance to describe my work and the work of my colleagues.

As a civil servant for an environmental agency in the Commonwealth of Virginia, I’m like thousands of hard-working, dedicated, even passionate state and federal employees nationwide; I know that the government is lumbering and often reactionary, but ultimately it is a powerful force for positive environmental change. State and federal agencies take plenty of potshots on these pages, but they are key partners with citizens and citizen groups in facilitating environmental progress.

I am the information manager for the Virginia Natural Heritage Program, which is a division of Virginia’s Department of Conservation and Recreation. The division is responsible for “conserving Virginia’s biodiversity through inventory, protection, and stewardship.” Similar natural heritage programs are found in every state and most Canadian provinces, but the Virginia Natural Heritage Program is one of the largest and most successful, with a broader scope of responsibilities than most.

Virginia possesses an extremely rich natural heritage. The book Precious Heritage: The Status of Biodiversity in the United States identifies a biodiversity hotspot in the southern Appalachians of southwestern Virginia. Unfortunately, 20 percent of Virginia’s species are of state conservation concern, with a third of these globally significant. The Natural Heritage Program works to protect Virginia’s natural heritage resources — rare plants and animals, rare or exemplary natural communities, and significant caves and karst features. Virginia’s karstlands are characterized by caves and sinkholes created by groundwater dissolving limestone bedrock. Over 4,000 known caves contain rare bats and a number of globally rare endemic invertebrates.

Our 12 inventory biologists, some of the best field biologists in the state, are responsible for determining the rarity of Virginia’s plants and animals and finding and documenting the location and condition of the rarest. We monitor 1,639 elements, and have documented almost 10,000 locations for these rare species and significant communities and caves. We also have six protection biologists who work with public and private landowners to inform them about the special resources on their property and determine ways to protect these resources. The strongest protection tool is a form of conservation easement called natural area dedication. VDCR is responsible for Virginia’s Natural Area Preserve System, and we now have over 26,000 acres in 36 dedicated Natural Area Preserves.

Placing land harboring natural heritage resources in protective ownership is not enough to ensure the success of these resources; we also need to restore and maintain the ecological conditions necessary for the sustained success of these resources. The 14 staff members in the stewardship section have a remarkably broad range of expertise and skills, which they bring to bear on managing Natural Area Preserve lands and cooperating with other landowners and conservation partners to promote such tools as prescribed burns, hydrological modifications, and invasive-species control.

At the hub of all this activity is the information management section, which I manage. The seven full-time and six part-time IM staff are responsible for assembling data into a central database and facilitating its use by our own staff as well as by other agencies, private organizations, and citizens for research, education, and protection. Our information is key to identifying biodiversity-protection needs and priorities and plays an important role in guiding development around significant natural habitats.