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Classifying Communities

Natural CommunitiesNatural communities generally occur in continuously varying patterns. Most of the environmental factors that determine communities vary over continuous gradients. We can best decipher the tremendous complexity of natural communities by categorizing them according to their ecology.

Natural communities are valuable elements of natural diversity for a variety of reasons. They are generally regarded as “coarse filters” for diversity of organisms. By protecting examples of all the natural community types, the majority of species can be protected without laborious individual attention. Like species, communities have an intrinsic value as natural systems, as well as aesthetic value to human beings. The following thirteen communities represent some of the most common communities as well as those considered of high visual interest across the landscape.

Community Type


Spruce-FirGenerally found above 5,500 feet (though locally lower in suitable sites) and extending to the tops of all but the highest peaks.
Beech GapHigh elevations, within the range of spruce-fir forests. Primarily in south-facing gaps, but may occur on exposed ridgetops in areas lacking spruce and fir or in areas adjacent to grassy balds.
Grassy BaldSlopes, ridgetops, and domes of high mountains, usually on gentle slopes.
Heath BaldExtremely exposed high elevation sites: peaks, sharp ridges, and steep slopes.
Northern HardwoodMedium to fairly high elevation coves, flats, and slopes, particularly on north-facing slopes.
High Elevation Red OakFound on dry to moderately moist slopes and ridgetops at mid to high elevations (around 3,500–5,500 feet).
Pine-Oak/HeathExposed sharp ridges, knobs, low elevation peaks, and steep south slopes.
Oak-HickoryDry to moderately moist slopes and partly sheltered ridgetops at moderate to fairly high elevations (about 2,500-5,000 feet).
HemlockSlightly less moisture than cove forest sites, including open valley flats, slopes above cove forests, sheltered low ridges, narrow ravines, and open north-facing slopes at fairly high elevations.
Acidic CoveSheltered low and moderate elevation sites, primarily narrow, rocky gorges, steep ravines, and low gentle ridges within coves.
Rich CoveSheltered, moderately moist, low to moderate elevation sites, primarily broad coves and lower slopes.
Short Leaf Pine-OakFound at low elevations, generally below 2,300 feet.
Low Montane AlluvialStream and river floodplains at low elevations, generally below 2,300 feet.


Schafale, M.P., and A.S. Weakley. 1990. Classification of the natural communities of North Carolina, third approximation. N.C. Natural Heritage Program, Raleigh, NC. 325 pp. Accessed from: