Gauging Ecological Threats in the Southeastern United States

Analysis will help guide the South Atlantic Landscape Conservation Cooperative

About This Project

Coastal plains dominated by longleaf pine (Pinus palustris) comprise nearly half of the most highly vulnerable ecological communities analyzed by NatureServe ecologists on behalf of the South Atlantic Landscape Conservation Cooperative. | Photo by Flickr user Daniel OinesThe piedmont and coastal plain region from southern Virginia to northern Florida face a bewildering array of ecological threats—including habitat loss, climate change, and invasions of exotic species—that are fomenting marked shifts in those landscapes.

One of the most influential stewards of this region is the South Atlantic Landscape Conservation Cooperative, a partnership of federal, state, private, and nonprofit organizations that is creating a blueprint for coordinated conservation actions that cut across political and jurisdictional boundaries.

In 2014, the South Atlantic LCC asked NatureServe to analyze their region’s threats and determine which are the most widespread, which are the most intense, and which habitats are seeing the most impact.

Goal

The South Atlantic LCC covers a wide expanse of piedmont and coastal plains from southern Virginia to northern Florida.Using NatureServe’s suite of standardized methods, a team of NatureServe ecologists documented and evaluated threats to all 72 terrestrial Ecological Systems found in the South Atlantic LCC’s domain. Each type of threat was rated on a scale from "low" to "very high" for each Ecological System. (“Ecological Systems” are mid‐scale classification units devised by NatureServe that demarcate ecological communities according to vegetation, environmental characteristics, and disturbances.)

The end result: 14 of the 72 Ecological Systems are highly or very highly threatened, six of which are coastal plain systems dominated by longleaf pine (Pinus palustris) or other fire‐dependent pine species.

Invasive species and housing/urbanization emerged as top threats in all of the 14 most vulnerable Ecological Systems. The other most common threats are:

  • Commercial and industrial areas (12 Ecological Systems)
  • Roads and railroads (12)
  • Fire and fire suppression (11)
  • Wood and pulp plantations (8)
  • Tourism and recreation areas (8)
  • Logging and wood harvesting (8)
  • Livestock farming and ranching (7)
  • Dams and water use/management (6)

Significance

The ecosystems of the Southeastern piedmont and coastal plains harbor incredible biological diversity, beauty, natural resources, opportunities for recreation, and the indispensable natural processes that sustain the area’s human presence.

Understanding and documenting the threats to each of these ecosystems is a crucial step toward enabling land managers, planners, and decision-makers to agree on the steps needed to protect these precious ecosystems. With the help of this project's findings, the South Atlantic LCC will be able to better evaluate whether certain habitats have fallen through the cracks of broader planning approaches, as well as identify opportunities for improvement.

Read the full report