The Natchez Trace Parkway is a 470-mile roadway that extends from Natchez, Mississippi, through the northwest corner of Alabama to Nashville, Tennessee. On its way from terminus to terminus, the parkway crosses through six forest types and eight major watersheds. The parkway connects the southern Mississippi River to central Tennessee, and it commemorates the historic route that was traveled by various American Indian tribes throughout early American history. The history of land use along the parkway includes disturbances by American Indians (e.g., use of fire), Europeans (e.g., timber harvesting followed by agriculture, then abandonment of agriculture and fire suppression), and then in current times, portions with active landscape management by the park service. Most wooded sections along the parkway are at least third- or fourth-growth forest. The primary management issues on the park are non-native/invasive species, adjacent land-use impacts, nuisance native species, and parkway construction. Because of the parkway’s shape and proximity to multiple large, sprawling cities, portions of it are subject to air and water quality issues, disturbed lands, and hydrologic disruptions.
Ecosystems on the Natchez Trace Parkway
The naturally vegetated portions of the Natchez Trace parkway are primarily upland forest ecosystems and forested wetlands. The park is long and narrow in shape, but there are several larger units at different points along the parkway’s length. Vegetation community mapping was completed on the park in 2016, and these maps provide a detailed picture of the different habitats that the park contains.
Within Tennessee, most of the parkway lies on the Western Highland Rim province of the Interior Low Plateau. The main ecosystem here is upland hardwood forest of deciduous trees. Example species are white oak (Quercus alba) and sugar maple (Acer saccharum). Further south on the parkway, in Mississippi and Alabama, the main ecoregions are Southeastern Plains and Gulf Coastal Plains. There, the forest composition includes more pines (e.g., loblolly pine [Pinus taeda] and spruce pine [Pinus glabra]) and a broader suite of oak species, including southern red oak (Quercus falcata), post oak (Quercus stellata) in the driest sites, and cherrybark oak (Quercus pagoda), shumard’s oak (Quercus shumardii), willow oak (Quercus phellos) and water oak (Quercus nigra) in more mesic, or moist, areas. Other tree species that are common on the southern half of the parkway include pecan (Carya illinoinensis), bitternut hickory (Carya cordiformis), sweetgum (Liquidambar styraciflua) and southern magnolia (Magnolia grandiflora). The wettest portions along the parkway, most frequent towards the southern terminus, include bottomland hardwood forests and swamps with water tupelo (Nyssa aquatica), bald cypress (Taxodium distichum) and laurel oak (Quercus laurifolia), among others.
The diverse forest of the parkway are home to many species of salamanders, such as the slimy salamander (Plethodon glutinosus) and webster’s salamander (Plethodon websteri). Birds are also abundant along this popular bird-watching route.
In addition to the many forest ecosystems along the parkway, there is also a small section of native grassland, specifically Black Belt Prairie, in northern Mississippi. The prairie occurs on distinct clay soils and requires fire to keep forest species, like eastern red cedar (Juniperus virginiana), from encroaching. Marshes can also be seen at different points along the parkway, some of which result from beaver dams. Finally, the parkway crosses or passes by many rivers, lakes, streams and ponds that house diverse freshwater aquatic ecosystems.
Vital Signs Monitored on the Natchez Trace Parkway
The Gulf Coast Network monitors two indicators of ecological health—called vital signs — at this park. They are:
Last updated: June 2, 2020