Western North Carolina
The 18 counties in this report cover 7,480 square miles or 4.8 million acres and are divided into three Councils of Government: Region A (Southwestern Commission), Region B (Land-of-Sky), and Region D (High Country). The area closely corresponds to the Blue Ridge Mountain Section ecoregion (as mapped in the Ecoregion Extent section on page 19).
Located east of the Tennessee state line and west of the Piedmont plateau, Western North Carolina contains few major urban centers. It is nestled in the southern Appalachian Mountains between Atlanta, Georgia; Greenville, South Carolina; Charlotte, North Carolina; and Knoxville, Tennessee. The 18 counties had a population of 743,885 in 2005. Population centers include Asheville (68,889), Boone (13,472), Hendersonville (10,420), Waynesville (9,232), and Black Mountain (7,511). The area is connected to other regions by two interstate highways: I-40, which runs from Tennessee southeast toward the Piedmont, and I-26, which runs north/south through the most populated counties in the region. Largely a rural area, most of the region is connected by state highways and county roads.
Western North Carolina has several colleges and universities, most notably Appalachian State University in Boone, the University of North Carolina at Asheville, Western Carolina University in Cullowhee, Warren Wilson College in Swannanoa, and Brevard College in Brevard.
Western North Carolina is home to many third- and fourth-generation residents, many of European descent. The region is currently experiencing an influx of retired residents and second-home owners, both groups citing the natural beauty and cultural opportunities of the area as major reasons for their move. The Eastern Cherokee Indian Reservation is located in Western North Carolina, just south of Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The main part of the reservation lies in eastern Swain County and northern Jackson County, but there are many smaller non-contiguous sections to the southwest in Cherokee County and Graham County. The 2000 U.S. Census cites the Eastern Cherokee Indian Reservation (the Qualla Boundary) as having a resident population of 8,092.
Typically, an ecoregion covers large areas of land and water and is broadly mapped using specific climate, vegetation, and physical characteristics. An ecoregion is divided into subregions, or sections. These sections are defined by similar physical (slope and aspect) and biological (vegetative types) components, and have a unique combination of ecological characteristics (including geology, soils, vegetation, weather, climate, and biological diversity) that distinguish it from its neighbors.
The ecoregion of Western North Carolina lies in what is called the Blue Ridge Mountain Section (see map). The distinctive characteristics of this section follow the backbone of the Appalachian Mountains from northern Georgia to southern Pennsylvania.
The formation of the highly weathered mountain range began during the Precambrian era to the Cambrian period (between 4.5 billion and 542 million years ago). The range now consists of gneiss and schist bedrock formed from the re-crystallization of sedimentary, volcanic, and igneous material. Over time, the geology of the region has become a dissected landscape of rounded peaks and wide concave valleys defined on the east by a steep escarpment rising 1,800 feet over the neighboring section. The ranges consist of low (
The landscape is covered predominantly by forest communities consisting of montane oak-hickory and mixed oak-pine types. Above 5,500 feet, the forests become dominated by spruce-fir forests.
Rainfall can be highly variable, ranging from over 78 inches to less than 47 inches per year. More rain falls in areas along the escarpment that are influenced by mountain elevations (called an orographic effect), particularly near the neighboring section in South Carolina. Less rain falls in the nearby Asheville basin, located in a rain shadow.
The climate of the Blue Ridge Mountain Section is cooler and wetter than that of adjoining sections, especially in the high-elevation forests where several species exist on the edge of their natural range. These mountaintop islands provide habitat for the Carolina Northern flying squirrel, Magnolia Warbler, and spruce-fir moss spider. The region also contains Southern Appalachian brook trout, which are associated with the cold water of high energy streams, and is home to more species of salamanders than are found anywhere else on earth.