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The Natural Heritage Network

The network of Natural Heritage Programs and Conservation Data Centres maintains a continually updated computerized database of information on rare and threatened species and natural communities. It is the only database that tracks the locations of these species and communities. As such, it is the most comprehensive and frequently consulted source of information on biodiversity that exists today. This information has numerous applications, from natural resource and development planning to land use and management decisions.
The network represents a public/private partnership with state and federal governments that has flourished for more than 20 years. There are currently 98 Heritage units (sometimes known as Conservation Data Centres), covering all 50 U.S. states, the Navajo Nation, Canada, Latin American and Caribbean countries. Most U.S. Heritage Programs are affiliated with state government agencies in the U.S. Others like New Mexico Natural Heritage are housed in universities and, in some cases, in The Nature Conservancy's state offices.
The Heritage Program methodology for organizing data was initially developed by The Nature Conservancy in the early 1970s. Conservancy scientists installed the first Heritage Program in South Carolina in 1974. Its installation marked the first instance of tracking by element (a discrete plant, animal, or natural community) rather than solely by a particular location. Sources such as The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, and The Pew Charitable Trusts made initial grants and investments to further develop the Heritage Network. These grants successfully leveraged hundreds of millions of dollars in public funding, which helped expand the network across the entire country.
Since then, the range of people and organizations using the network has also increased dramatically. Today, the main users of network information are the state and local government agencies responsible for natural resource management and protection. Corporations and the Federal government are the next most frequent users of the network, particularly the Department of the Interior, the Department of Agriculture, and the Department of Defense. Non-profit groups, conservation organizations, researchers, academics, consultants, and private landowners also consult the network in their endeavors.

The network databases identify species, natural communities, and ecosystems in need of protection at the local, regional, national, and global levels. For species, the network tracks the scientific name, distribution and population trends, habitat requirements, and ecological relationships. For natural communities, databases contain information on vegetation structure and composition, succession patterns, natural disturbances, and the distribution and rarity of specific community types throughout their geographic range. In addition, the network tracks the quality and condition of each occurrence of a community.

Information on both species and communities is compiled from existing sources, including scientific literature, field guides, books, maps, and museum collections, as well as from direct contact with experts. In addition, Heritage scientists conduct field inventories to verify the presence of these species, supplementing the preliminary data with information about the status and locations of each element of conservation interest.

The information contained in the Heritage databases helps facilitate the design and implementation of ecologically sound development projects. If consulted during the early stages of a project, it can help minimize the degradation of resources and prevent costly delays or confrontations over a particular land area. For example, network information might result in rerouting a power line or a new roadway to prevent the habitat destruction of a rare species. The information on rare species also helps scientists and land managers in the stewardship of parks, reserves, and other protected areas.

The Heritage Network is renowned for its objective scientific information. It assigns status ranks to species and natural communities based on their relative rarity. Once a species has been given a global, national, and subnational rank of one to five (with one being the most rare), the Heritage Programs create lists, or scorecards, of species in their region, with the rarest at the top of the list for protection. In effect, these scorecards enable conservation organizations to select the best sites for protecting the rarest species.

By using standardized methods and a computer software package (the Heritage Data Management System) developed and supported by NatureServe™ (formerly ABI), Heritage Programs can exchange and analyze information across geographical and political boundaries. For example, several state Heritage Programs or CDCs can pool information on a region or an ecosystem that encompasses several program's jurisdictions. The Conservancy supports the Heritage Programs by providing training and technical support, computer software and technology transfer, standard methodologies, compatible ecological classifications, and mapping technologies.

The Heritage Programs and Conservation Data Centres created NatureServe™ to represent themselves as a cohesive network. Such representation is valuable in setting policies for data dissemination and exchange, producing joint reports, and determining future systems design. Management of the Network has been transferred from The Nature Conservancy (US) to NatureServe to further strengthen and highlight the activities of the Natural Heritage Network.

Applications of the Heritage Network

Responding to 70,000 information requests annually, the Natural Heritage Network guides decisions ranging from conservation to development. The Nature Conservancy is one of many Heritage Network users. Most users (72 percent) are federal, state, provincial, and local government agencies. Non-profit groups, conservation organizations, researchers, and academics represent 14 percent of all requests, and consultants, corporations, and private landowners constitute the remaining 14 percent.

In many cases, Heritage information is consulted to avoid potentially expensive conflicts involving rare species or natural communities. Heritage information, therefore, helps inform and validate decisions involving rare species and appropriate land management.

In the U.S. Heritage Programs work with the Department of the Interior, including the Fish and Wildlife Service, National Biological Service, National Park Service, and Bureau of Land Management, conducting biological inventories and mapping species found on federally owned lands. Other federal agencies that use Heritage data include the Department of Defense, the Environmental Protection Agency, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the U.S. Agency for International Development, and the Department of Agriculture, specifically the U.S. Forest Service.

Below are examples of how public and private groups have used the Heritage Network.
  • The U.S. National Park Service established a Yellowstone Conservation Data Centre, merging data from the Wyoming, Idaho, and Montana state Heritage Programs to form a complete inventory of the rare species found in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. The ecosystem comprises Yellowstone National Park, Grand Teton National Park, and seven adjacent national forests. The Yellowstone Conservation Data Centre will help various federal agencies coordinate management activities in the region, which is threatened by intensifying recreational use, residential building, and resource development.
  • In Michigan, the state Department of Natural Resources called upon the Michigan Heritage Program when a developer designed a condominium along a stretch of Lake Michigan where the federally and state endangered Michigan monkey flower grows. The Heritage Program provided additional information regarding the location of the monkey flower and other rare plants. The developer avoided legal conflicts with the federal and state governments by modifying the plans for the condominium and even included an educational display on protecting rare plants and their habitats. The developer fenced in colonies of the monkey flower and built a boardwalk from which to view the flowers without damaging them. The plant species was saved, and the condominium was completed.
  • Arkla, Inc., a natural gas company, planned to build an interstate pipeline from Oklahoma to Arkansas. The company was concerned, however, that the presence of sensitive species along the route might prevent the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service from granting the needed permits. The Oklahoma Natural Heritage Inventory provided information on the rare species during both the planning and the mitigation stages of the project. The Fish and Wildlife staff was able to recommend alternate routes and the Heritage staff was able to successfully identify and inventory a site for a mitigation project, a 2,000-acre area called Cucumber Creek that was purchased and established as a Conservancy preserve.