The natural heritage of Western North Carolina includes all the region's native plants and animals as well as the places they live and grow. North Carolina is home to thousands of native plants and animals, and Western North Carolina supports a large part of the state's biodiversity. Significant Natural Heritage Areas, identified by biologists in the North Carolina Natural Heritage Program, contain the land and water needed to support and preserve the biodiversity in North Carolina. These areas often are the best examples of natural communities and usually include rare and endangered species.
Over 2,400 such areas have been identified on both public and private land in North Carolina. Focusing on these areas helps planners prioritize conservation efforts and send financial resources where they have maximum ecological benefits. The North Carolina Natural Heritage Program is not a state regulatory program, so Significant Natural Heritage Areas have no protected status. Once an area has been named a Significant Natural Heritage Area, however, the owner can register the property with the North Carolina Natural Heritage Program to show their commitment to keep the land in its natural state. The land can also be permanently protected through purchase and dedication as a State Nature Preserve.
Each area is assigned a significance rating indicating how important it is. The four levels are:
The site contains one of the best occurrences of a rare or high-quality plant, animal, or natural community known to exist anywhere in its range.
The site contains one of the best occurrences within North Carolina of a rare or high-quality plant, animal, or natural community that is not already considered of national significance.
The site contains one of the best occurrences within a priority region of a rare or high-quality plant, animal, or natural community that is not already considered of national or state significance.
The site is a biological resource within the county, but not of regional significance.
Western North Carolina has about 500 of the statewide Significant Natural Heritage Areas. Of the acreage of these areas (622,530 acres):
* 68.5 percent is of national significance
* 17.9 percent is of state significance
* 9.8 percent is of regional significance
* 3.8 percent is of local significance