USC Citizens for Land Stewardship
Conservation and stewardship of land and natural resources in Upper St. Clair

Natural Areas: More than Pretty Places

by Jeff Wagner

People will often use the term “natural area” to describe any area that has not been built upon and possesses some natural features like woodlands, grasslands, or wetlands. Minimal development and significant natural features are, in fact, key elements in defining natural areas. However, as important as the living resources and quality of the land are, the other pillar of the natural area concept is the management intent of the owner.

If you have visited a Pennsylvania Bureau of Forestry natural area, a U.S. Forest Service natural area or research natural area, or a natural area owned by a land trust or conservation organization, you may have gleaned the critical aspect that ties the concept of natural areas together: the dedication of the areas to the protection of specific ecological features within a framework of minimal management and no development. This dedicated status assures that the area will not fall victim to changing land-uses and economic pressures and will evolve and mature as a biological community.

Natural Areas in Pennsylvania are designated by agency or organizational policy and not by legal or legislative mandate as is done in some other states. Most natural areas, publicly and privately owned, are open to the public and may offer hiking trails and interpretative features. Occasionally, research activities are permitted. Management is oriented toward maintaining the natural composition, structure and processes that occur there. Intervention to mitigate a threat to the ecology of the area means careful consideration of possible results of the intervention. For example, removal of garlic mustard - an aggressive European plant - would probably be a compatible form of management if done carefully, probably by hand cutting and pulling. However, the spraying of BT (Bacillus thuringensis) - a biological pesticide - to control gypsy moth would probably not be compatible because of its potential to unselectively kill all lepidoptera (butterflies and moths) even though the practice is considered “safe” given its minimal direct effect on vertebrate animals (like humans). It is the entire community of organisms that must be the ultimate target of protection, even when particular rare species are present. All species have a role to play in the functioning of the community - no groups can be considered more or less important than any other.

A number of natural areas exist in Western Pennsylvania - F.H. Duttlinger in Clinton County (Bureau of Forestry), Powdermill Nature Preserve in Westmoreland County (Carnegie Museum), Wolf Creek Narrows in Butler County (Western PA Conservancy), and Deadmans Hollow in Allegheny County (Allegheny Land Trust), to name a few. Areas vary tremendously in size, ranging from a few to a few thousands of acres. Many times the boundaries of the natural area are ownership or political jurisdictions and do not necessarily conform to the ecological requirements of the communities and species present. For those fortunate enough to plan for the designation of a natural area, determining the ecological boundaries of the site is critical to creating a functional and viable living community.

Fortunately for residents of Upper St. Clair and surrounding communities, there are areas that contain significant features within our township. Several of these areas are recognized in the Allegheny County Natural Heritage Inventory completed in 1994. See Andy Loza's article to learn more about the inventory and about the largest of these areas. Recognition and official designation of these Natural Heritage Areas as Natural Areas would add much needed protection to these unique resources for now and for the generations ahead. Natural Areas are alive and it is how we view that living resource that makes them more than simply pretty places.