What is a Natural Area?

Identifying and helping landowners protect their natural areas is one of the jobs of the Louisiana Natural Heritage Program. However, we have determined that a natural area does not mean the same thing to everyone, whether they are a forester, wildlife biologist, or a private landowner. Therefore, we have attempted to describe below what a natural area is as accepted by the LNHP. 

What is a Natural Area? Natural Areas registered with the Louisiana Natural Areas Program must support rare, threatened or endangered plants or animals, state significant natural communities, or high quality common elements. The state’s registry program encourages voluntary conservation of significant natural lands in both private and public ownership. Landowners of natural sites placed on the registry play a crucial role in the conservation of the natural heritage resources found on their properties. Species and natural communities are often lost simply because a landowner is unaware of their existence and management needs. O

ften people think that the term “natural area” means that a piece of land must be left alone, and not managed to be natural. However, in most cases, the opposite is true. Natural areas must be managed using specific guidelines in order to preserve and/or restore natural communities or wildlife habitats occurring on the site. As Louisiana was settled, the natural environment and natural processes that maintained our biological communities were drastically altered. We now must battle factors such as invasion by exotic species, fire exclusion, altered streams and water systems, landscapes fragmented by roads, pipelines, and development, as well as many other threats in order to manage and maintain the character of our state’s natural areas. A natural community that is out of balance in composition, structure and function, or that has been highly altered from its original condition, can be brought back toward natural balance through a carefully devised management regimen.

Louisiana Natural Heritage Program (LNHP) staff provides registry landowners with a biological assessment of their property, and develop specific management suggestions to retain the natural character of their property and ensure long‐term survival of the natural heritage resources. The following are general management guidelines that can be applied to managing any natural area. Each Natural Area in the program should also have individualized management guides for the particular species or natural communities found on that specific site.
What does managing my Natural Area mean? The practice of Natural Area management means doing what is necessary to maintain or promote the natural integrity of the ecosystem that is present or should be present on any piece of ground, considering site factors such as surface geology, soils, topography, hydrology and geographic location.

It means determining what natural communities (habitats) were originally present on the site, considering the above factors, and working to maintain the natural integrity of that habitat, if it is still present, or working to promote and restore those natural conditions that have been lost or degraded through past land use practices.

The natural integrity of an ecosystem is probably best assessed by evaluating the composition, structure, and functions of the current habitat on site and comparing these to the composition, structure and functions of the system originally present.
Restoration/Maintenance of the system is really what natural area management is about.

Implementing Natural Area management… Some ways to implement management of your natural area site are:

  • Maintain/restore historical natural community composition and structure. 
  • Do not convert natural forests, or those forests that are similar to their pre‐European condition to commercial plantation forests. 
  • Do not convert natural prairies or grasslands (not even small portions) to food plots, or agricultural plantings. Avoid disturbance of the groundcover. 
  • Favor a full natural balance of species that would be expected at a site given site factors. For example, with forested sites do not ʺpushʺ the area to be overly stocked with commercially desirable trees or selected wildlife trees if this upsets the natural balance of species. Do not intentionally eliminate species indigenous to a site. 
  • Natural forest management often includes environmentally sensitive timber harvest. If timber removal is necessary, practice methods that duplicate as nearly as possible natural disturbance regimes under which our forest systems evolved. The great majority of natural disturbances are small‐scale events (e.g., lightning strike mortality, thunderstorm down‐bursts, small‐scale insect infestations) that operate at scales of less than an acre to only a few acres. An all‐aged (uneven‐aged) management, system such as single‐tree/small group selection, appears to best duplicate these events. 
  • Consider surrounding landscape conditions when formulating management plans. If this tract supports an indigenous habitat type that is largely missing from the general landscape (for example, shortleaf pine‐hardwood forests, longleaf pine forests, or older natural forests of any type), it is important to maintain this condition on as much of the tract as possible. 
  • ʺEdgeʺ is not utopia for all wildlife. While most early successional species prosper when much edge is introduced, plants and animals adapted to forest interior conditions usually have problems. It is important to maintain relatively large blocks of mature natural forest for these species. There is currently a super‐abundance of ʺedgeʺ and early successional habitat in the state. Older natural forests are becoming scarce, particularly patches larger than 100 acres. 
  • Maintain old‐growth natural forests where possible. 
  • Fire is critical in maintaining/restoring many natural community types. Use prescribed fire as appropriate for different ecosystems and their inclusions. Some recommended fire intervals are:
    • coastal, calcareous prairies ‐ once every 1 ‐ 3 years 
    • longleaf pine and included communities ‐ once every 1 ‐ 3 years 
    • shortleaf pine‐hardwood forest ‐ once every 5 ‐ 15 years 
    • mixed hardwood‐loblolly forest ‐ once every 20 ‐ 40 years 
  • Use growing‐season fires when possible; our natural ecosystems evolved under a regime of fires started by lightning, mainly in the spring and summer. Apply most fires in the spring, in the interval mid‐April to late June. Growing‐season fires can be rotated with dormant‐season fires. 
  • Use natural fire breaks such as streams, branch bottoms or other embedded wetland breaks, and allow the fire to create its own ecotonal patterns on the landscape as it originally did. By avoiding or minimizing the use of plowed fire breaks, you minimize erosion and soil movement, and maintain the natural integrity of your property. 
  • Do not mechanically or chemically disturb unique areas (e.g., bogs, seeps, temporary natural ponds, deep sandy spots, prairies or forests on calcareous clays, glades, shortleaf pine, longleaf pine, etc.) that may be present. 
  • Do not disturb stream‐side zones; do not disturb steep slopes above streams. 
  • Maintain/restore historical hydrologic patterns, to the extent practicable. 
  • Practice state‐of‐the‐art prevention/detection/control of southern pine beetle problems. Be ever vigilant in detection and control of the beetles. 
  • Monitor for rare species and habitats found on your property and working with LNHP, devise specialized management for any rare species or habitats present. 
  • Retain snags and low‐vigor/damaged trees within the stand. These are natural components of natural forests and are important for various ecological reasons. 
  • Likewise, large downed woody material (e.g., rotting logs) are important parts of naturally functioning forests. A tree has fulfilled only a portion of its ecological function in a forest at the time it dies. 
  • Control/remove aggressive non‐native plant species that are displacing native vegetation. Some of the worst are Japanese honeysuckle, privet‐hedge, Chinese tallow tree, and Japanese climbing fern (bridle‐veil fern). Careful use of appropriate herbicides will probably be necessary to accomplish this. 

Remember, these are only general guidelines that will require site‐by‐site interpretation and application by professional biologists/ecologists. The Louisiana Natural Heritage Program can provide additional specific management recommendations tailored to your particular Natural Area. Contact Judy Jones at 225‐765‐2822 or jjones@wlf.louisiana.gov