Protected Areas

Category III: Natural Monument or Feature

Protected areas set aside to protect a specific natural monument, which can be a landform, sea mount, submarine cavern, geological feature such as a cave or even a living feature such as an ancient grove. They are generally quite small protected areas and often have high visitor value.

Primary objective

To protect specific outstanding natural features and their associated biodiversity and habitats.

Other objectives

  • To provide biodiversity protection in landscapes or seascapes that have otherwise undergone major changes;
  • To protect specific natural sites with spiritual and/or cultural values where these also have biodiversity values;
  • To conserve traditional spiritual and cultural values of the site.

Distinguishing features

Category III protected areas are usually relatively small sites that focus on one or more prominent natural features and the associated ecology, rather than on a broader ecosystem. They are managed in much the same way as category II. The term “natural” as used here can refer to both wholly natural features (the commonest use) but also sometimes features that have been influenced by humans. In the latter case these sites should also always have important associated biodiversity attributes, which should be reflected as a priority in their management objectives if they are to be classified as a protected area rather than an historical or spiritual site. Category III protected areas could include:

  • Natural geological and geomorphological features: such as waterfalls, cliffs, craters, caves, fossil beds, sand dunes, rock forms, valleys and marine features such as sea mounts or coral formations;
  • Culturally-influenced natural features: such as cave dwellings and ancient tracks;
  • Natural-cultural sites: such as the many forms of sacred natural sites (sacred groves, springs, waterfalls, mountains, sea coves etc.) of importance to one or more faith groups;
  • Cultural sites with associated ecology: where protection of a cultural site also protects significant and important biodiversity, such as archaeological/historical sites that are inextricably linked to a natural area.

Nature conservation attributes of category III protected areas fall into two main types:

  • Biodiversity that is uniquely related to the ecological conditions associated with the natural feature – such as the spray zones of a waterfall, the ecological conditions in caves or plant species confined to cliffs.
  • Biodiversity that is surviving because the presence of cultural or spiritual values at the site have maintained a natural or semi-natural habitat in what is otherwise a modified ecosystem – such as some sacred natural sites or historical sites that have associated natural areas. In these cases the key criteria for inclusion as a protected area will be (i) value of the site as a contribution to broad-scale conservation and (ii) prioritization of biodiversity conservation within management plans.

Category III has been suggested as providing a natural management approach for many sacred natural sites, such as sacred groves. Although sacred natural sites are found in all categories and can benefit from a wide range of management approaches, they may be particularly suited to management as natural monuments.

Role in the landscape/seascape

Category III is really intended to protect the unusual rather than to provide logical components in a broad-scale approach to conservation, so that their role in landscape or ecoregional strategies may sometimes be opportunistic rather than planned. In other cases (e.g., cave systems) such sites may play a key ecological role identified within wider conservation plans:

  • Important natural monuments can sometimes provide an incentive for protection and anopportunity for environmental/cultural education even in areas where other forms of protection are resisted due to population or development pressure, such as important sacred or cultural sites and in these cases category III can preserve samples of natural habitat in otherwise cultural or fragmented landscapes.

What makes category III unique?

Because it is aimed at protecting a particular feature, category III is perhaps the most heavily influenced of all the categories by human perceptions of what is of value in a landscape or seascape rather than by any more quantitative assessments of value. This is less applicable in category III protected areas designated for geological features, where systematic identification is possible. Management is usually focused on protecting and maintaining particular natural features.

The fact that an area contains an important natural monument does not mean that it will inevitably be managed as a category III; for instance the Grand Canyon in Arizona is managed as category II, despite being one of the most famous natural monuments in the world, because it is also a large and diverse area with associated recreation activities making it better suited to a category II model. Category III is most suitable where the protection of the feature is the sole or dominant objective.

Category III differs from the other categories in the following ways:
Category Ia Category III is not confined to natural and pristine landscapes but could be established in areas that are otherwise cultural or fragmented landscapes. Visitation and recreation is often encouraged and research and monitoring limited to the understanding and maintenance of a particular natural feature.
Category Ib
Category II The emphasis of category III management is not on protection of the whole ecosystem, but of particular natural features; otherwise category III is similar to category II and managed in much the same way but at a rather smaller scale in both size and complexity of management.
Category IV The emphasis of category III management is not on protection of the key species or habitats, but of particular natural features.
Category V Category III is not confined to cultural landscapes and management practices will probably focus more on stricter protection of the particular feature than in the case of category V.
Category VI Category III is not aimed at sustainable resource use.

Issues for consideration

  • It will sometimes be difficult to ascertain the conservation attributes of category III sites, particularly in cases where there may be pressure to accept sites within a protected area system to help protect cultural or spiritual values.
  • Not all natural monuments are permanent – while some sacred trees have survived for a thousand years or more they will eventually die – indeed many trees are considered to be sacred in part because they are already very old. It is not clear what happens to a category III protected area if its key natural monument dies or degrades.
  • It is sometimes difficult to draw the boundaries between a natural monument and cultural site, particularly where archaeological remains are included within category III.
  • Some apparent “monuments” may require protection of a larger ecosystem to survive – for example a waterfall may require protection of a whole watershed to maintain its flow.
  • Monastery in Montserrat National Park, Spain


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