Virginia Natural Heritage Program honored with two international conservation awards

RICHMOND — The Virginia Natural Heritage Program has been honored with two international conservation awards, making it the only natural heritage program ever to receive two top honors in the same year. 

The program was singled out for outstanding conservation impact among the 80 similar programs that comprise an international conservation Network across the United States, Canada and Latin America. In addition, the program’s 25-year director, Tom Smith, was presented with NatureServe’s first-ever Lifetime Achievement Award.

NatureServe, the nonprofit conservation organization that coordinates the Natural Heritage Network, announced the awards in April at its annual conference.

“NatureServe is thrilled to recognize the Virginia Natural Heritage Program, now in its 30th year, for exceptional efforts over the past decade to conserve Virginia’s native plants, animals and natural habitat,” said NatureServe President and CEO Mary Klein. “The staff’s ability to establish partnerships, leverage new technologies, share innovations across the Network and impact on-the-ground conservation is evident in the program’s many accomplishments.”

“Thirty-six species new to science, 313 species newly discovered in Virginia, 760 natural communities and rare species protected on our 63 natural area preserves — the numbers speak for themselves,” said Virginia Secretary of Natural Resources Molly Ward. “I am so proud of the biodiversity conservation work these public servants have done for our citizens.”

A part of the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation, the Natural Heritage Program’s mission is to protect Virginia’s native plant and animal life and the natural environments on which they depend through science-based conservation. The work includes collecting and managing data on natural communities and rare species and developing maps and data-sharing tools to guide conservation and land-use decisions. Its staff also manages the 55,600-acre Virginia Natural Area Preserve System for the long-term protection of rare species habitat and ecologically significant natural communities. 

“We received this award because of many significant achievements in the past decade — from natural community and rare species discoveries in the field, to the development and sharing of conservation planning tools, to land conservation successes,” Virginia Natural Heritage Director Jason Bulluck said. “And none of this would have been possible without our sharp, creative and passionate staff and partnerships that help support us through the DCR, NatureServe and the Natural Heritage Network.”

Smith, recipient of NatureServe’s first-ever Lifetime Achievement Award, served as director of the Virginia Natural Heritage Program from 1992 until 2016. Smith joined the Virginia program in 1990 and through his dedicated leadership thousands of new discoveries have been made, the preserve system has grown from four to 63 properties and the program was three times recognized as an internationally award-winning program. He recently was promoted to deputy director of operations for DCR. 

In presenting the award, NatureServe’s Klein noted Smith’s contributions to the birth, growth, evolving and big thinking of NatureServe and its member natural heritage programs, all of which have helped NatureServe grow into a premier international conservation organization.

“There is no one I think more highly of than Tom Smith,” said Robert L. Jenkins, first vice president for science programs for The Nature Conservancy and founder of the Natural Heritage Network. “From the earliest days of our association, and that goes back a long way, Tom was as dedicated to the biodiversity inventory and conservation mission as it is possible to be. Time has shown him to be one of the most effective people in the history of the enterprise.”

The Virginia Natural Heritage Program celebrates its 30th anniversary this year. For more information, visit

NatureServe is a non-profit organization that provides high-quality scientific expertise for conservation. Our dynamic and impactful data, tools, and expertise help guide conservation action where it’s needed most. We envision a world where decision-makers fully understand the importance of science, and use information provided by the NatureServe Network to identify and protect our precious animals, plants, and ecosystems. To learn more, visit and