Northeastern coastal forests

Northeastern coastal forests of the Piedmont plateau and the Coastal Plain cover all or part of seven states, from northern Maryland to southern Maine. The ecoregion is dominated by Appalachian oak forests, characterized by white oak (Quercus alba) and northern red oak (Q. rubra). Until the early part of this century American chestnut (Castanea dentata) was so ecologically and commercially important a species in this ecoregion that these forests were known as oak-chestnut forests. A chestnut blight caused by Endothia parasitica and likely imported from Chinese chestnuts spread rapidly following its introduction in 1904, killing most chestnuts in New England in 20 years and at the southern end of the species’ range by 1940. Although chestnuts still sprout profusely from root systems after more than half a century, few trees survive long enough to reach the main canopy of a mature forest stand (Barnes 1991).

Hurricanes and fires shaped the classic presettlement landscape of New England. Native Americans set most of the fires, a practice they used to manage vegetation for some 9,000 years before the arrival of European settlers (Niering 1992). The fires in southern New England tended to create open, parklike forests which attracted wildlife, favored palatable ground cover plants, and facilitated movement and increased visibility for hunting (Cronon 1983). Severe storms, especially in the south, have also resulted in extensive blowdowns, which require a century or more to recover. Ice and glaze storms are a significant but less obvious disturbance in these deciduous forests (Barnes 1991).

A transition occurs in this glaciated landscape from oak and oak-hickory communities to the south and east to hardwood communities to the north and west. Species of southern distribution, such as sweet gum (Liquidambar styraciflua), river birch (Betula nigra), Spanish oak (Quercus falcata), and red mulberry (Moros rubra) have reached or are reaching their northern limits. On disturbed sites a new set of species, including paper birch (Betula papyrifera), grey birch (B. populifolia), and quaking aspen (Populus tremuloides) become more important. The oak communities grade into mixed deciduous communities on the lower north slopes and ravines. The species composition varies widely, having either elements of the oak forest or those of the northern hardwood-conifer forest, depending on local climatic and soil conditions.

  • Scientific Code
  • Ecoregion Category
  • Size
    34,600 square miles
  • Status
  • Habitats

Biological Distinctiveness
The Northeastern Coastal Forests are relatively rich, with over 750 species and seven endemics. Of the 18 ecoregions classified as temperate broadleaf and mixed forests, the Northeastern Coastal Forests rank seventh in terms of richness and endemism, and first in bird richness with over 250 species. The region also supports numerous butterfly species. The Northeastern Coastal Forests include part of Delaware Bay, a large-scale migratory corridor and feeding area for shorebirds and songbirds, where birds feed on horseshoe crab eggs. This ecoregion includes a significant portion of the range of the bog turtle (Clemmys muhlenbergii). The northern subspecies found in this area is a candidate for listing as a Federally Threatened Species.

Conservation Status

Habitat Loss
Suburban sprawl has resulted in the loss of over 98 percent of the ecoregion’s natural habitat. Remaining habitat is limited to fragments and degraded larger patches. The northeastern forests were the first on the continent to suffer from heavy logging pressure, and they may again come under the ax as loggers revisit the northeast, for the fourth or fifth time, as western forests are depleted.

Remaining Blocks of Intact Habitat
Practically no old growth forest remains in this ecoregion (Davis, 1996), and there are no blocks of intact habitat more than 250 km2 in area. Important blocks include:

•Devil’s Den Nature Conservancy Preserve - Connecticut - 6.9 km2 (1,700 acres)
•Cape May National Wildlife Refuge - southern New Jersey - 32.2 km2 (7,956 acres)
•Great Swamp Management Area - Rhode Island - approx. 12 km2 (3,000 acres)
•Crandall Swamp - Rhode Island - approx. 6.1 km2 (1,500 acres)
•Great Bay Wildlife Refuge - southeastern New Hampshire
•Freetown State Forest and adjacent land - southeastern Massachusetts
•Shawangunk Mountains Dwarf Pine Plains - southern New York
•Quabbin Reservoir - Massachusetts
•Plum Island National Wildlife Refuge - northeastern Massachusetts
•Bare Mountain and Mt. Tom, Connecticut River Valley - west-central Massachusetts
Degree of Fragmentation
The Northeastern Coastal Forests are highly fragmented, with effectively no connectivity in most areas and little core habitat due to edge effects. The individual fragments and clusters that remain are highly isolated, and the intervening urban and suburban landscape precludes dispersal for most taxa.

Degree of Protection
None of the protected areas in this ecoregion exceeds 250 km2. The greatest challenges to conserving a fraction of this original ecosystem are to manage the public lands for multiple use and to marry those public lands to private reserves. Most of the sites suitable for biodiversity conservation are small and quite isolated. Within the ecoregion, the best opportunities for conservation in the short term occur in: Delaware Bay Shores, Great Bay National Wildlife Refuge (which does not include the entire bay), Falls River State Park (where adjacent land is not protected), and New York’s Mohonk Preserve and Minnewaska State Park, which protect the Shawangunk Mountains Dwarf Pine Plains.

Types and Severity of Threats
Development is the greatest threat and could significantly alter at least 25 percent of the remaining habitat within the next 20 years. Native plants are experiencing significant mortality due to shoreline erosion, the introduction of exotics, and overuse of natural resources. Collection of wild orchids and reptiles poses a threat to some species and the recreational use of fragile shoreline constitutes a major threat to the wildlife of this ecoregion.

Suite of Priority Activities to Enhance Biodiversity Conservation

•Add to protection of the Delaware Bay -- Land acquisition is ongoing and a careful, well-managed approach to eco-tourism is being developed. This includes linking existing preserves in the region through a system of site improvements and a unified interpretive plan.
•Pennsylvania/Maryland serpentine barrens - This is the largest expanse of serpentine barrens in the eastern United States. The rare serpentine prairie, savanna and woodland areas are sustained by a combination of fire and toxic minerals found in the serpentine rock. Recommendations include acquisition of remaining undeveloped land and improved management, particularly regarding the use of prescribed burns or other techniques for duff reduction.
•Bog turtle habitat conservation - Significant threats to bog turtles include habitat destruction, metapopulation fragmentation, excessive groundwater withdrawl, and collection. Local habitats need to be reconnected and managed to slow succession to woodlands in order to restore metapopulation dynamics.
•Protect piping plover breeding areas along beaches in Connecticut, New York, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Maine, and New Jersey. Protect natural processes of longshore drift, erosion and overwash, which maintain coastal systems.
•Connecticut River tidelands -- The lower Connecticut River and its tributaries is one of the richest ecosystems in the northeast, providing habitat for hundreds of species, seven of them globally rare or endangered, and containing an extraordinarily unsullied wetland complex. An ecosystem management approach is needed to conserve this nationally important natural resource.
•Improve management of Great Bay, acquire land nearby and promote compatible development.
Conservation Partners

•Association for Biodiversity Information
•Essex County Greenbelt Association
•Maine Coast Heritage Trust
•Massachusetts Audubon Society
•The Nature Conservancy
•The Nature Conservancy - Eastern Regional Office
•New Jersey Audubon Society
•New Jersey Conservation Foundation
•Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests
•Trustees of Reservations, Northeast Regional Office
•Trustees of Reservations, Southeast Regional Office

Relationship to other classification schemes
The Northeastern Coastal Forests are demarcated from the New England/Acadian forests [NA0410] to the north by vegetation (Küchler 1985) and elevation. The latter ecoregion is dominated by hardwoods and occurs in the mountains rather than the coastal plain. This ecoregion extends Omernik’s Northeastern coastal zone to the south and west, overlapping with parts of Omernik’s Northern Piedmont and Middle Atlantic coastal plain ecoregions. We believe this classification is more in keeping with the ecological patterns of the region, and also creates a somewhat smaller and more manageable ecoregion along the southern Atlantic coast.

Prepared by: M. Davis, W. Eichbaum, J. Adams