Central Appalachian Forests: A Critical Biodiversity Area

Landscape view by S. Austin
Credit: Samuel H Austin, USGS. Public domain.

The Central Appalachian Region

The Central Appalachian ecoregion spans the Appalachian, Allegheny, and Blue Ridge mountain ranges in northwestern North Carolina to southern Pennsylvania. This ecoregion consists of many geologic variations and contains the largest drainage divide in the eastern US between the Atlantic Slope and Mississippi Valley rivers. This region is characterized by several different forest types, as species composition varies with geology and/or elevation. Common characteristic canopy species at lower elevations include oaks, hickories, magnolias, and tulip poplar. At higher elevations common species include sugar maple, yellow birch, oaks, and eastern hemlock.

Central Appalachian forests host a diverse amount of plant and animal species. This diversity is exceptionally high due to two main factors: glaciation did not affect the southern reaches of this region, and there is a high variability of microclimates. Additionally, this region is one of the richest temperate freshwater regions in the world and it contains parts of the Ohio, Tennessee, Cumberland, and Mobile River drainages, which are global hotspots for freshwater fish and invertebrates.

Current status
While the forests in Central Appalachia provide various ecosystem services, they are threatened by several human-caused factors. Incompatible timber harvesting practices, conversion to residential or agricultural lands, and altered fire regimes play a big role in determining the species and structural composition of these forests. There is a current concern over the “mesophication” of fire-dependent, second-growth Appalachian forests, i.e. that the species composition is shifting from oaks and other dry-site species to less desirable mesophytic species on non-mesophytic sites.

Another threat to Central Appalachian forests includes hydrologic alteration and degradation. Some practices such as converting hardwood sites to pine plantations and not following Best Management Practices for forestry can often lead to reduced quality of aquatic habitats.

Futher reading
Chapman, Julia I., and Ryan W. McEwan. “Tree Regeneration Ecology of an Old-Growth Central Appalachian Forest: Diversity, Temporal Dynamics, and Disturbance Response.” The Journal of the Torrey Botanical Society 139, no. 2 (2012): 194–205.

Fredericksen, Todd S. “Impacts of Logging and Development on Central Appalachian Forests.” Natural Areas Journal 18, no. 2 (1998): 175–78.

Loucks, C., D. Olson, E. Dinerstein, A. Weakley, R. Noss, J. Stritholt, and K. Wolfe. “Appalachian Mixed Mesophytic Forests | Ecoregions | WWF.” World Wildlife Fund. Accessed June 19, 2020.

NatureServe. “Central Appalachian Forest Ecoregion.” Landscope America, 2020.

North Carolina Forest Service. “What Are BMPs?” North Carolina Forest Service, March 6, 2017.

Rainforest Alliance. “Sustainable Forestry in Appalachia.” Rainforest Alliance, September 15, 2016.

Water Resource Committee. “Implementation of Forestry Best Management Practices: A Southern Region Report.” Southern Group of State Foresters, June 2008.

Weakley, A., Michael P. Schafale, K Patterson, L Sneddon, and M Payne. “Liriodendron Tulipifera - Tilia Americana Var. Heterophylla - Aesculus Flava Forest Alliance.” NatureServe Explorer 2.0, January 8, 2014.


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