There are 4 key ecological systems that the NCSCP focuses conservation efforts on: longleaf pine uplands, isolated depressional wetlands, streamhead pocosins and seeps, and blackwater streams. These systems can vary in the composition of natural communities they support, with the areas of highest quality continuing to host several rare species often found nowhere else outside of the NC Sandhills. All targets require a fire regime to support their characteristic natural communities; in fact, species found in this system are specifically adapted to active and frequent fire cycles, with many of the vegetative species requiring fire to produce seed, release seed, and colonize new patches.
Ecoregions denote areas where ecosystems are generally similar in the type, quality, and quantity of environmental resources they contain. They are critical for implementing ecosystem management strategies across agencies and organizations that are responsible for managing different types of resources within the same geographical areas.
There are four ecoregions in NC, across which one can find barrier islands and coastal lowlands, large river floodplain forests, rolling plains and plateaus, forested mountains, and a variety of aquatic habitats. The Fall-line Sandhills extends north from Georgia to South Carolina into southern North Carolina, including northern Hoke, eastern Richmond, northern Scotland, western Cumberland, Harnett, southern Moore and southern Lee counties of North Carolina.
The Sandhills Ecosystem
The Sandhills are an inland habitat type, characterized by rolling hills capped by deep coarse sands. They are wedged between the Coastal Plain and Piedmont regions of North and South Carolina and Georgia, within the ancestral homelands of the Tuscarora, Coharee, and Lumbee tribes.
The Sandhills ecosystem was formed first by deposition of marine clays and sands in the Upper Cretaceous Period, followed by an influx of material carried by rivers from the Piedmont, and subsequently reworked by wind, weathering and erosion, including the melting and freezing of polar ice caps. This system supports up to 40% of the biodiversity of the North Carolina in just over 1 million acres, due to the diversity of topography, wetlands and drainages that result from these sandhill formations and clay-based soils.
The North Carolina Natural Heritage Program has classified 18 distinct community types for the Sandhills. Each type differs in hydrology, soils, species composition, dynamics, fire regime, and biological associations, and each type provides a different set of ecological functions and services. The longleaf pine is the dominant tree species in the Sandhills system and is essential to its integrity, but the floral and faunal diversity of the system lies in its understory. The understory throughout the longleaf range contains 150 to 300 species of groundcover plants per acre, more breeding birds than any other southeastern forest type, about 60% of the amphibian and reptile species found in the Southeast—many of which are endemic to the longleaf forest—and at least 122 endangered or threatened plant species.
Partners of the NCSCP aim to better understand, conserve, and maintain this tremendous diversity.
Longleaf Pine Uplands
To determine and maintain habitat extent and connectivity for longleaf indicator species, such as the red-cockaded woodpecker (RCW) and Bachman's sparrow. Both species are dependent on mature, open canopy longleaf woodlands with lush, native herbaceous groundcover. Our partners frequently use prescribed fire to maintain a reduced mid-story and preserve open wiregrass habitat for these species and others, such as the southern hognose snake and Sandhills pixie-moss.
Isolated Depressional Wetlands
Locating and evaluating the condition and extent of isolated depressional wetlands across the Sandhills landscape will guide our management actions. Many of these wetlands have been destroyed or degraded and no longer support the rare plants and animals they once did. The winter-breeding amphibians that rely on these wetlands also require adjacent upland habitat for other stages of their life cycles, so we aim to restore adequate connectivity and buffers for these species, such as the Carolina gopher frog and tiger salamander.
Streamhead Pocosins & Seeps
Locating and evaluating the condition and restoration potential of streamhead pocosins and seeps will guide our initial conservation efforts. We will then determine whether adequate connectivity and buffers exists for associate species that additionally require downstream riparian corridors, such as the St. Francis satyr, Sandhills lily, and pine barrens tree frog.
To better understand watershed connectivity by reporting on the (1) location of dams, which disrupt natural flow and affect the downstream floodplain and riparian forest communities; (2) extent of intact riparian forests, which filter nutrients, sediment, and serve as important movement corridors for terrestrial and semi-aquatic species; and (3) health of aquatic ecosystems by sampling benthic invertebrates and monitoring water quality. These streams support several rare fish and freshwater mussels, many of which we know little about.