Inventory and Monitoring Program
The National Parks Omnibus Management Act (1998) directed the National Park Service (NPS) “to establish baseline [resource] information and to provide information on the long-term trends in the condition of National Park System resources. The Inventory and Monitoring Program was created to acquire the information and expertise needed by park managers to protect park resources and maintain ecosystem integrity in the face of multiple threats. To accomplish this formidable task, the NPS has grouped parks into 32 networks based on ecological similarity and geographic proximity.
The Appalachian Highlands Network is composed of four NPS units in North Carolina, Virginia, Tennessee, and Kentucky -- Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area, Blue Ridge Parkway, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, and Obed Wild and Scenic River.
Appalachian Highlands Network parks vary in size from 5,174 acres to 521,490 acres, and include two of the most-visited units in the National Park system (GRSM & BLRI). The network parks are divided between two ecologically distinct physiographic regions: the Cumberland Plateau of Kentucky and Tennessee, and the Southern Appalachian Mountains of Virginia, North Carolina, and Tennessee. Both these regions are characterized by high levels of biological diversity and endemism. Within the network parks, there are 409 species ranked as Critically Imperiled, Imperiled, or Vulnerable by The Nature Conservancy, including 33 species federally listed as Endangered or Threatened.
The Appalachian Mountains are among the oldest in the world, having changed relatively little over the past 200 million years. This long stability, combined with great variation in geology, landforms, and climate, has fostered enormous biological diversity, especially in the south where the land was never covered by glaciers or inundated by oceans. The Southern Appalachians are one of the most species-rich temperate areas in the world, with 2,250 species of vascular plants, including over 130 species of trees, over 200 species of birds, and thousands of species of invertebrates, including the highest number of land snail species in the U.S. This ecoregion is also recognized as a world center for salamander diversity. Network parks protect the largest contiguous stands of old-growth forest remaining in the eastern United States, as well as many of the best remaining examples of globally imperiled species and communities.
The Cumberland Plateau, extending 450 miles from southern West Virginia to northeastern Alabama, is an extensive tableland of sandstone and shale carved by water into a labyrinth of rocky ridges and deep gorges. The Cumberland River system historically contained approximately one-third of the United States’ freshwater mollusk diversity. The Big South Fork and Obed Rivers are inhabited by 30 species of freshwater mussels, over 200 species of macroinvertebrates and 80 fish. This is a substantial reduction from historic species numbers, resulting from water quality degradation associated with siltation and acid mine drainage from coal mining. The Big South Fork has more extant federally-listed endangered mussels and fish than any other NPS unit, and contains one of the richest and healthiest remaining mussel faunas in the Cumberland River system. Also within the Plateau parks are several globally rare terrestrial vegetation communities (Cumberlandian boulder/cobble bars, sandstone cliffs/outcrops and rock shelters) which support large numbers of rare and endemic plants, including three species that are federally-listed as Endangered or Threatened. The largest and best remaining populations of two of these federally-listed plants ( Cumberland rosemary and Cumberland sandwort) are within network parks on the Plateau.