Guest Post by Amal Dadi
Did you know that North Carolina is one of the most ecologically unique states in the country? Discover the forests right here in your backyard!
From mountains to sea, North Carolina contains at least eight defined climate zones. This diversity of habitats means that natural spaces in North Carolina are full of surprises. Did you know that most of the land in North Carolina used to be forested?
So what does it mean to be a forest anyways?
Forests = Trees
Forests are complex, land-based ecosystems that trees dominate. We can find woods in upland areas (which are hilly) or at higher elevations. Or we can find forests in wetland areas, which are low-lying and water soaks through the soil. This can sometimes permanently flood the area.
Most forests have several layers. These include the:
- forest floor
- emergent layer at the very top.
Forests also exist below the ground with extensive tree root systems that go deep into the soil. Roots filter pollutants, reduce erosion, and feed the tree.
Forests benefit life on Earth in many ways. Whether above or below ground, each section of a forest is home to different kinds of plant and animal life. This makes forests exceptional habitats for promoting biodiversity.
Like all plants, trees make their own food using photosynthesis. Water from the soil, energy from the sun, and carbon dioxide from the air are transformed into oxygen and sugars, which feed the plant and help it grow. This process means that trees are carbon sinks: they take in more carbon from the atmosphere than they release.
Who Takes Care of our Forests?
The North Carolina Forest Service is responsible for protecting, managing, and promoting forest resources across the state. Part of their job is producing an annual report that lays out the status of forests in the state. It’s important to remember that “forest lands” include natural forests, heavily managed (logged)
forests, and plantations that often only grow rows upon rows of one type of tree.
In 2021, the NC Forest Service found that forests cover an estimated 18.7 million acres in North Carolina found that forest lands in North Carolina have many different owners, including:
- Individuals or families – over 10 million acres
- Corporations – almost 3 million acres
- Forest and logging industries – 1.3 million acres
- Public lands – 4.7 million acres
Who manages public forests?
Forests on public land are special because they’re collectively owned by US citizens. This means that everyone can enjoy the recreational, tourism, health, and other benefits of public forests.
Governments manage public forests at the local, state, or federal levels. United States Forest Service federally manages some of the largest forests in North Carolina. These National Forests include:
- Pisgah National Forest
- Nantahala Nation Forest
- Uwharrie National Forest
- Croatan National Forest
There are also plenty of state and local forests to explore!
Though all forests share similar characteristics, not all forests are the same. So exactly how many different types of forests are found in North Carolina? Let’s examine a few.
1. Pine Forests
The pine tree has been the official state tree of North Carolina since 1963, and for good reason. Eight different species of pine are native to habitats within the state’s borders:
- Eastern white pine
- Loblolly pine
- Longleaf pine
- Pitch pine
- Pond pine
- Shortleaf pine
- Mountain pine
- Virginia pine
Of these, longleaf pines are some of the most abundant. In fact, longleaf pine forests were once the most common ecosystem in Eastern North America.
How fire benefits longleaf pine forests
Like other forests with conifers, longleaf pine stands are fire-dependent. Because these habitats often burn by wildfire, the plants and animals within them have special adaptations to help them withstand the heat. Fire benefits longleaf pine forests by:
- clearing out the shrubbery and undergrowth
- recycling nutrients into the soil
- allowing new plants to thrive
Before European colonization, longleaf pine forests covered over 90 million acres in the South. That’s an area over twice the size of the state of Georgia!
Now only 3% of that ecosystem remains. Many factors destroyed much of the state’s pine forests, including:
- Fire suppression tactics
- Poor forest management
- Industrial logging
- The extractive practices of historic turpentine and tar industries
Where to find them:
The 116-acre Nichols Longleaf Pine Preserve. It contains the largest remaining stand of old-growth longleaf pine in central North Carolina. Located north of Troy, NC, both the North Carolina Zoo and the Three Rivers Land Trust manage this property. It’s home to some trees that are over 200 years old!
Weymouth Woods-Sandhills Nature Preserve showcases a small, unique inland region in North Carolina: the sandhills. This area is characterized by rolling hills capped with sandy soil. Hardy pine trees tend to thrive here, making Weymouth Woods another fantastic place to see longleaf pine forests.
Did you know that the mountaintops of Western North Carolina are carpeted in temperate rainforests? Towering spruce-fir forests at high elevations receive over 60 inches of rainfall each year. That’s enough precipitation that these regions are actually considered rainforests!
But unlike rainforests in the tropics, Appalachian rainforest temperatures remain cool and mild year-round.
North Carolina rainforests are relics of the last Ice Age. Back then, only parts of the mountains remained uncovered by ice or snow. These oases became critical habitat for animals seeking refuge from colder areas.
Even today, Appalachian rainforests remain a hub of biodiversity. They provide a home for over 10,000 native plant and animal species.
Where to find them:
Spruce-fir rainforests thrive at high elevations. We can find them at or near the summits of some of the tallest peaks in North Carolina.
Nantahala and Pisgah National Forests are nestled in the mountains of Western North Carolina. Both contain many examples of temperate rainforest habitat.
Since mountain rainforest habitats are so remote and fragmented, sometimes these microhabitats are home to unique animals. Many species of animal can only be found on a single mountaintop or in a special grove of Appalachian rainforest. For example, the endangered Weller’s salamander is typically only found on Grandfather Mountain near Pisgah National Forest.
3. Swamp Forests
A swamp is any wetland that trees and other woody plants dominate. Since wetlands are saturated with water, wetland plants thrive in damp or flooded environments. These plant communities help clean water by filtering out pollutants and other contaminants.
Several different types of wetland forests exist in North Carolina. Bottomland swamps are found along freshwater rivers. They contain hardwood tree species like cedars, oaks, ashes, birches, and the American beech. Wetland forests can also occur near freshwater lakes or in saltwater habitats by the coast.
Where to find them:
Alligator River Wildlife Refuge in Eastern North Carolina. It sprawls across 154,000 acres of coastal wetlands, including swamps and forests.
Croatan National Forest also has 160,000 acres of coastal and wetland forest. It is one of the best places to see native species of carnivorous plants like sundews, pitcher plants, or Venus flytraps.
Some of the oldest bald cypress trees in the world can be found along the waters of the Black River Preserve in Southeastern North Carolina. The oldest known bald cypress is an individual that is confirmed to be over 2,600 years old. That’s hundreds of years older than the Roman Colosseum!
4. Maritime Forests
Maritime forests line many of the barrier islands, where sandy Carolina beaches meet the Atlantic Ocean. Shrubs and stunted trees characterize these coastal forests. Only the hardiest plants can withstand the salty spray and strong winds along the shore.
Wax myrtle, red cedar, and stunted live oaks are common in areas that are directly exposed to the elements. These trees shield plants and animals that are more sensitive to the high winds and salty air.
In the undergrowth, you may find American holly trees, loblolly pines, red maples, or larger live oaks. Maritime forests protect coastal regions from storm surges by trapping and slowing excess water, purifying the groundwater, and preventing nearby habitats from flooding.
Where to find them:
The North Carolina Coastal Reserve and National Estuarine Research Reserve system protects land that includes three large maritime forests:
- Currituck Banks Reserve
- Kitty Hawk Woods
- Buxton Woods
Though best known for its massive sand dunes, Jockey’s Ridge State Park also contains extensive maritime shrub and evergreen forests.
Southern Forests Are Under Attack
These are only a few of the different types of forests found in North Carolina. Though Southern forests are astonishingly diverse, they all share one key trait: forests are extremely vulnerable to industrial exploitation.
Appalachian rainforests are disappearing with climate change. Along the coast, so-called ghost forests are becoming more common: stands of dead trees that haunt the shore killed by rising sea levels. Old growth and hardwood forests are prime targets for industrial loggers. The woody biomass industry cuts down any kind of trees to burn for fuel.
When forests are destroyed, often monocultures replace them. Monocultures: rows and rows of the same type of tree, usually loblolly or slash pine. These artificial forests are not part of a balanced ecosystem.
Pine plantations do not preserve soil integrity or provide the same habitat for native species. There is even evidence that pine plantations may worsen air pollution and climate change.
Forests Are Worth Protecting
Natural forests are an important resource. They provide critical habitat for native species and serve as buffers against pollution, disease, and climate change.
Dogwood Alliance believes that forests are worth protecting. Tell President Biden to enact forest protections today!
Amal Dadi is a Forests & Climate Research Fellow with Dogwood Alliance for the Summer of 2022. She is a graduate student at Duke University working on her master’s degree in Science Policy and Bioethics. She is passionate about environmental issues and science education. Amal has always loved the outdoors. She enjoys hiking, swimming, and reading in her spare time.