Unique Natural Features


Unique Natural Features

Unique natural features are primarily—though not universally—geological features that are rare or of special social/cultural, economic, educational, aesthetic, or scientific value.

Development on or near natural features may render them inaccessible to investigators or visitors, degrade their value, or otherwise limit potential future use and appreciation of these resources. The key criterion in defining a unique natural feature is the rareness of the feature, a characteristic often recognized as a local landmark. Another characteristic is information content. Some unique natural features contain a great deal of information concerning natural history, such as geologic evolution or paleontological history. Additionally, natural features sequester greenhouse gases, act as a buffer against extreme weather events for coastal communities, and provide a range of other positive ecosystem services, which should be considered before degrading or removing natural features.

Examples of unique natural features include:

  • Sand dunes
  • Waterfalls
  • Unique rock outcroppings
  • Caves (especially those with limestone or gypsum deposits)
  • Canyons
  • Fossil beds/petrified forests
  • Endemic (i.e., localized) plant/animal communities
  • Disjunct (i.e., outside of normal range) communities
  • Coral reefs
  • Unique stands of trees (such as ancient redwood stands)
  • Unique colonies of animals (such as a prairie dog town)

Important Considerations

  1. Will the proposed project location, construction, or activities of project users adversely impact unique natural features on or near the site?
  2. Will the project destroy, isolate from public or scientific access, or degrade the rare feeling of the unique natural feature?
  3. Will the unique feature pose safety hazards for a proposed development?
  4. Will the proposed project alter any views between public areas and the unique natural feature?
  5. Will runoff from the project erode or degrade the unique feature?
  6. Will the project create problems by introducing nuisance or non-indigenous species of vegetation that may be ecologically disruptive, be invasive, or threaten the survival of unique plant or animal habitats?
  7. Will the project limit the ability of a natural feature to provide important ecosystem services to the community?

Analysis Techniques

Review the project plans to determine its proximity to any unique natural features. Site observation and interviews with a knowledgeable person can be a good starting place. For a birds-eye view, aerial photography can also be used. Other sources of information include the state geological survey, U.S. Geological Survey, state or regional departments of conservation, and local planning geographic information system (GIS) dataset analysis to locate unique natural features in the project area. Next, determine how the project will impact the natural feature visually and audibly. Also, assess if the project will bring more people and cars near the natural feature.

Mitigation Measures

  • Set features aside as part of a natural area for long-term preservation; adopt state and/or local legal protections to preserve the feature.
  • Provide visual or physical access to the feature without allowing the access methods to degrade the feature’s visual integrity.
  • Modify landscaping plans to avoid the introduction of invasive exotics and/or the release of harmful herbicides and pesticides.
  • If the project cannot avoid the feature, allow for scientific research (such as excavation of a fossil bed) before permitting development action near the resource.

Resources to Reference/Experts to Contact

  • U.S. Geological Survey Topographic Quadrangle Maps and Surface and Bedrock Geology Maps. The “Quadrangle” maps indicate topographic features. Some unique natural features contain a great deal of information concerning natural history, such as geologic evolution. The Geologic Maps provide information concerning contours and mineral outcroppings in the area.
  • Aerial photos can help identify existing land uses and unique features of the terrain
  • Geological reports and maps prepared by state universities and state agencies
  • State and federal Park Service Naturalists and/or Geologists
  • State Natural Heritage Programs
  • State Wildlife Resource Management Agencies
  • Local university Natural Scientists or Geologists
  • Local nonprofit Conservation Organizations
  • State Resource Conservationist
  • National Resources Conservation Services (NRCS), USDA
  • City or county Planner, County Planning Department, or Conservation District
  • Biological Consultants and Foresters
  • Adjacent Property Owners