A landscape framework using widely accepted eco-region boundaries helps conservation planning efforts by grouping habitats into areas that share common landscape settings and patterns. These settings and patterns are influenced by climate, soils, land surface form, and natural vegetation. They are often used for organizing, interpreting and reporting information about land-use dynamics. In 2005, the N.C. Wildlife Action Plan (NCWAP) used three physiographic provinces — Mountains, Piedmont, and Coastal Plain — as a landscape framework. In the 2015 revision, four eco-region boundaries are used for grouping aquatic, wetland, and terrestrial community descriptions (habitats) because doing so allows us to highlight the unique characteristics of the Sandhills eco-region. The following map depicts the boundaries of the four eco-regions.
For more information about North Carolina's eco-regions, see Chapter 4 in the 2015 N.C. Wildlife Action Plan.
The Mountain ecoregion includes all portions of the Southern Appalachian Mountains that occur west of the Blue Ridge Escarpment. There are several foothill ranges (the Brushy, Sauratown, and South mountains) located within the Piedmont province that are part of the Mountain ecoregion. North Carolina has the highest elevations of any state east of the Mississippi River, with Mount Mitchell being the highest peak at 6,684 feet (all elevations are above mean sea level).
From high peak spruce-fir forests to low floodplain valleys, the mountainous western region of North Carolina provides specialized habitat for a broad array of biodiversity. Natural community descriptions and priority conservation action recommendations can be found in Chapter 4 of the 2015 N.C. Wildlife Action Plan (NCWAP).
The Piedmont ecoregion includes the areas east of the foot of the Blue Ridge Escarpment and west of the fall line, excluding the foothill ranges that are part of the Mountain ecoregion. The fall line is a major break in geologic structure between the Piedmont and the Coastal Plain which results in differences in ecosystem patterns and a variety of landscape relief and roughness. Elevations range from about 1,500 feet in the foothills to about 200 feet at the fall line.
North Carolina’s classic Piedmont habitats include old fields, rock outcrops, streams and woodlands, where species diversity for some animal groups, such as amphibians, reptiles and birds, is relatively high.
The Sandhills are the southwestern portion of the upper Coastal Plain ecoregion and are geologically a former coast line. The distinctive geomorphology of the Sandhills is from predominantly sandy soils formed of Cretaceous-age marine sands and, in some places, clays that are capped by Tertiary-age sands deposited over Piedmont metamorphic rocks. The landscape has rolling hills and native vegetation includes many rare plants.
The Coastal Plain ecoregion includes mid-Atlantic areas east of the fall line and the tidal coast (ocean, sounds, barrier islands, and mainland brackish and salt marshes). It may be divided roughly into two sections: the tidewater area (lower Coastal Plain), which is largely flat and swampy, and the interior portion (upper Coastal Plain), which is made up of gently sloping elevations and is better drained than other regions. The upper Coastal Plain encompasses the Sandhills ecoregion. The average elevation is from about 200 feet at the fall line (or western boundary separation from the Piedmont), sloping to an elevation of generally 50 feet or less over most of the mainland landscape, with barrier islands being close to sea level.
Eastern North Carolina is home to longleaf pine ecosystems, wetlands, maritime forests and other critical habitats for terrestrial and aquatic species.
While inland freshwater aquatic systems represent a small percentage of the landscape, they are living systems that are influenced by numerous conditions such as landscape position, slope, width, depth, temperature, velocity, substrate or bed material, chemistry and land cover. The various geology, landscape and climate attributes found in North Carolina contribute to the wide diversity of aquatic habitats found across the state. The table below provides an overview of the type of natural aquatic communities found in North Carolina and the eco-regions where they occur.
Click here for more information about NC River Basins
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The N.C. Department of Environmental Quality has designated 17 major river basins in North Carolina. Of these, 11 river basins have headwaters that begin in North Carolina but only 4 are contained entirely within the state - these are the Cape Fear, Neuse, Tar-Pamlico and White Oak river basins. The other river basins have headwaters that drain across adjacent states (Georgia, South Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia) before crossing North Carolina.