History of NC Forests

Prior to European settlement, North Carolina was mostly forested, and Amerindian tribes were dispersed throughout this forested landscape. Accounts by early European explorers traveling through North Carolina suggest that the natives used fire to modify the forest’s condition and that they relied upon subsistence agriculture for significant portions of their diet. However, disturbance from such Amerindian activities created localized or mostly temporary impacts. The primary forests of North Carolina were extensive and varied.

Longleaf pine forests dominated most upland soils in the southeastern part of the state, while floodplains and riverine swamps supported hardwood species. Mixed pine-hardwood forests covered most of northeast North Carolina. Hardwood forests dominated by oak, hickory and pine covered most of the piedmont landscape. Oak and chestnut dominated mountain slopes up to about 4,500 feet elevation with spruce and Fraser fir covering the highest elevations. Rich coves supported hemlock and yellow poplar. Dogwood, cedar, magnolia and many other species added to the diversity.

Earliest settlements along North Carolina’s coast initiated clearing for agriculture and development of a plantation culture and economy. Later, poor overland transportation routes funneled migration up rivers like the Cape Fear, and from the valleys settlers moved out across the interstream divides. Eventually yeoman farmers rather than plantation owners dominated North Carolina’s agriculture-based economy, and forests were subjected to a variety of assaults.In the 1700s the naval stores industry began to affect longleaf forests so that by mid-century North Carolina was the leading producer of tar and turpentine.

North Carolina’s market dominance continued for more than a century until depletion of longleaf stands caused production to shift south by 1890. Further west, as settlers moved into the North Carolina piedmont beginning in the mid 1700s, lumbering and clearance for agriculture and pasturage increased rapidly. By the close of the Civil War in 1865, the state was perhaps only one-third forested, and most of the primary forest remaining was in the mountainous western portion of the state. Most of this mountain timber was cut in later decades of the 19th century and early decades of the 20th.

Amid growing national concern over the condition of forest lands in the United States, scientific forest management was first introduced on the Biltmore Estate and Pisgah Forest in 1892. George Vanderbilt’s acceptance of scientific management led him to hire Gifford Pinchot and then Carl Schenck to manage his forest lands. Schenck’s perceived need for trained foresters to carry out scientific management led to his creation of the Biltmore Forest School and a tradition that has had continuing impact on forests of North Carolina and the nation. Regeneration of forests, through natural succession on abandoned agricultural land, with loblolly, short-leaf and Virginia pines and various oaks, resulted in a slow recovery of the state's eastern forest cover. Acquisition of cutover lands in the mountains led to formation of national forests, which have provided the basis for the high percentage of land remaining in forest in that section of North Carolina.

By the mid-20th century, North Carolina had more than 20 million acres of forest. That acreage has declined to about 19.3 million acres today, mostly due to residential and commercial development. Even with that decline, 58 percent of North Carolina remains forested with some of the most diverse forest types and the widest range of species occurring in North America.

*Prepared for the North Carolina Forest Legacy Program Assessment of Need by Gary B. Blank, Ph.D., North Carolina State University, Department of Forestry.