Appalachian-Cumberland Highlands: The Next 50 Years

by Sarah Farmer, SRS Science Delivery Group

The Appalachian Trail winds through the Blue Ridge Mountains, which are part of the Appalachian-Cumberland highlands. Photo by Sarah Farmer.

Knowing more about how the future might unfold can improve decisions that have long-term consequences. The Southern Forest Futures Project, a multi-agency effort led by the U.S. Forest Service, aims to forecast and interpret changes in southern forests under multiple scenarios over the next several decades. The first of five sub-regional reports to explore these futures on smaller scales was recently published. Tara Keyser, a research forester with the Upland Hardwood Ecology and Management unit, was lead author of the newly published sub-regional report that describes possible futures and management implications across the U.S. Appalachian-Cumberland highland.

The Appalachian-Cumberland highland consists of about 62 million acres in parts of Alabama, Georgia, North Carolina, Tennessee, Kentucky, and Virginia. These forests are dominated by hardwoods and contain a highly diverse suite of plant and animal communities, along with many endemic species. Forecasted scenarios suggest that a variety of pressures could create novel conditions that affect ecosystem structure and function.

Over the 50-year horizon, dramatic changes in land uses are predicted for the subregion:

  • Urban land use is expected to increase from about 4.3 million acres to about 6.7 million acres, and loss of non-Federal forested area is expected under all projections.
  • Urbanization-driven changes in land use coupled with loss of forests near metropolitan areas could threaten the diversity and abundance of bats, salamanders and other species.
  • Habitat fragmentation could make migration in response to climate and disturbances difficult.
  • The effects of population change are also predicted to increase water stress. Water stress may be most visible around larger cities, but rural communities could well experience increased stress as well, since groundwater is the primary source of potable water in rural areas.

The interacting effects of climate change, population growth, and increased urbanization – and the accompanying expansion of the wildland-urban interface – will require land managers to address the increase in the potential, severity, and extent of wildfire throughout the Appalachian-Cumberland. An extended wildfire season would magnify the importance of effective fuels management. However the same drying that could extend the wildfire season could also limit the ability to use prescribed fire. Forecasted increases in dryness could shorten burn windows, increase the potential for escaped fires and/or result in more severe fire effects than intended. 

Insects and diseases are prominent disturbances in Appalachian-Cumberland forests and will continue to influence forest structure, function, and composition during the next 50 years. Insect and disease outbreaks have the potential to all but eliminate certain species such as hemlock and ash trees from the ecosystem, with cascading ecological consequences. Invasion of forest communities by nonnative plants is driven largely by habitat fragmentation, parcelization, increasing population, recreational use, and forest disturbance, all of which are forecasted to increase. In addition, climate change will not only accelerate the rate of invasion of invasive plants in a given area, but also facilitate movement of specific species into new ecosystems.

Restoring ecosystem structure and function and improving forest resilience could be the keys to mitigating the negative effects of the changes that are predicted. Because the issues that will affect forests over the next 50 years cross ownership boundaries an “‘all-lands approach” would be the most effective way to ensure continued ecological and economic benefits.

Read the full text of the report.

For more information, email Tara Keyser at tkeyser@fs.fed.us

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Posted in Climate Change, Fire, Fish & Wildlife, Insects and Diseases, Invasive Plants, Upland Hardwoods