A study published in the most recent Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences identifies the U.S. Southeast as the key area for national protection of species biodiversity. Biodiversity is an important indicator of an ecosystem's resiliency.
Using Geographic Information Systems, or GIS, researchers mapped the ranges of species within six groups: mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, freshwater fish, and trees, and then compared those ranges to existing protected lands. The data revealed a geographic mismatch. Protected lands are primarily in the western states, but biodiversity is greatest in the Southeast, where far less land is protected.
Furthermore, when biodiversity of endemic species (those found only within the continental United States) was looked at alone, the Southeast scored highest in all six groups, making it the most important focal region for native biodiversity. “It appears that private land protection efforts, similar to public protected areas, are not prioritizing the most endemic-rich areas of the country, or at least are having less success in those areas,” the authors said.
The Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC) and our many partners are already working to protect the study's three Recommended Priority Areas in the Southeast.
One of these areas is the Blue Ridge Mountains. According to the study, “much of this region has substantial biodiversity value, but is inadequately protected under its current classification as National Forest. Raising the protection level of these lands, emphasizing ecosystem protection and low-impact recreation over extractive uses, would be a major conservation gain.”
Logging, road construction, and other development are allowed in many areas of the National Forests, but SELC’s National Forests and Parks Program is working to ensure that rare species’ habitats have extra protection. For example, as the Nantahala-Pisgah National Forest revises its long-term management plan, SELC and our partners are advocating that these biodiversity hotspots gain further protections through designation as wilderness, backcountry, remote habitats, or “special biological areas.” We are also encouraging a greater emphasis on scientifically supported ecological restoration in the revised plan.
A second Recommended Priority Area including the Tennessee, Alabama, and northern Georgia watersheds, is primarily comprised of private lands but is globally significant for aquatic species. In these watersheds, SELC focuses on stopping unpermitted pollutant discharges into rivers, preventing hazardous mineral extraction (like coal mining and fracking), protecting healthy in-stream flows, and championing smart growth in a rapidly growing region, including protecting the limited existing national forest lands. Additionally, SELC’s work on the Tri-State Water Wars is beneficial to some of the same watersheds, as well as the Florida panhandle, which is a third Recommended Priority Area in the study.
Complete text of the study is available here.