North Carolina’s fading forests

Only 4 percent of habitat remains for the iconic longleaf pine. The pine’s forested habitat is home to more than 100 endangered plant and animal species.
Only 4 percent of habitat remains for the iconic longleaf pine. The pine’s forested habitat is home to more than 100 endangered plant and animal species. LandTrust for Central North Carolina

Alan Weakley treasures a geography book from 1810 that he inherited from his great-grandfather. “When you look under North Carolina, the first seven exports that are listed – tar, pitch, turpentine, resin, boards, scantling and shingles – are all products derived from longleaf pine,” said the adjunct associate professor of biology at UNC Chapel Hill. (Scantlings, by the way, are small pieces of construction lumber.)

In addition to being an iconic Southern tree that was once a foundation of North Carolina’s economy, the longleaf pine savanna (pinus palustris) is part of our state’s identity. The Order of the Longleaf Pine is one of North Carolina’s highest civilian honors. As for its ecological importance, the pine’s forested habitat is home to more than 100 endangered plant and animal species.

But according to N.C. State researcher Jennifer Costanza, only 4 percent of longleaf pine habitat remains. Moreover, the North American Coastal Plain – which includes all of Eastern North Carolina and stretches from New England to the Gulf Coast – has 1,816 plants that occur nowhere else, and 86 percent of all habitats in the plain have been lost.

“The biggest losses have been to longleaf pine savannas, as well as grasslands and marshes,” Costanza said. “We’ve lost 96 percent of longleaf pine savannas, and 98 percent of grasslands and marshes.”

Plant and animal species found only in the Carolinas, such as the Venus flytrap and Carolina gopher frogs, also are endangered.

“The habitat loss doesn’t show signs of slowing, either,” she said. “The growth of cities, along with sea-level rise, are two major threats to the North American Coastal Plain in the future.”

These escalating numbers are why seven scientists, including some from UNC and N.C. State, successfully lobbied to have the North American Coastal Plain declared the world’s 36th biodiversity hotspot. The designation was announced in February, after the group co-authored a paper in the publication Diversity and Distributions explaining why the region met the criteria of 1,500-plus endemic vascular plant species and greater than 70 percent habitat loss. Their goal was to raise awareness of the many threats these habitats face.

Why this matters to N.C.

“When most people think of biodiversity, many probably think of somewhere far away – a tropical rainforest, or maybe the Himalayan Mountains,” Costanza said. “So the fact that we have a place that’s globally significant for biodiversity right here in North Carolina is amazing and exciting! But it also means that biodiversity is highly at risk.”

Weakley, one of the paper’s co-authors, says people often take the region’s habitats for granted: “Some people tend to view this as, ‘What do these ecosystems mean to me?’

“They provide the oxygen we breathe; they provide recreation resources we take advantage of; they provide cleaning of the water that we drink, and so forth. With the increasing population and demands on those ecosystem services, we do need to have a better appreciation for that.”

He added that losing some of these natural resources could prevent us from realizing their possible benefits – “the idea that there are a lot of plants and animals that we haven’t learned to utilize for their chemical compounds that could be helpful to us. If they become extinct, we can’t do that.”

Awareness, funding lacking

The global biodiversity hotspot designation helps set international priorities for conservation, while emphasizing the need for increased conservation funding in North Carolina to stop future habitat loss through means such as the state’s three conservation trust funds: the Clean Water Management Trust Fund; the Parks and Recreation Trust Fund; and the Agricultural Development and Farmland Preservation Trust Fund.

But Costanza noted that all three funds have had substantial cuts in recent years. “Compared to 10 years ago, public funding for land conservation in North Carolina has decreased dramatically,” she said. “The last state budget passed in 2015 increased funding for the trust funds over the previous budget, but total funding for the trust funds is still about half of what it was 10 years ago.”

Weakley said the new designation “doesn’t mean there’s suddenly going to be lots of money for conserving biodiversity in the coastal plain, or there’s going to be greater regulation that will impact people’s lives in the coastal plain.”

The Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund, a partnership of many world governmental and nongovernmental organizations, helps protects Earth’s biodiversity hotspots. The CEPF does provide grants for conservation of these hotspots, but hotspots in North America are not eligible.

So local and private funding are essential. “People can support funding for conservation in North Carolina, such as through the state’s three conservation trust funds,” Costanza said. “They can also support policies to minimize urban sprawl and promote smart growth of cities so that we don’t lose any more important habitat.”

Want to know more?

More information on the hotspot designation: