Balsam Flats

Balsam Flats
David M. Hunt

Forested Uplands
State Protection
Not Listed
Not listed or protected by New York State.
Federal Protection
Not Listed
State Conservation Status Rank
Imperiled or Vulnerable in New York - Very vulnerable, or vulnerable, to disappearing from New York, due to rarity or other factors; typically 6 to 80 populations or locations in New York, few individuals, restricted range, few remaining acres (or miles of stream), and/or recent and widespread declines. More information is needed to assign either S2 or S3.
Global Conservation Status Rank
Apparently Secure globally - Uncommon in the world but not rare; usually widespread, but may be rare in some parts of its range; possibly some cause for long-term concern due to declines or other factors.


Did you know?

The resin of balsam fir trees is used to produce Canada balsam, a turpentine primarily used as an invisible-when-dry glue for glass, including optics and microscope slides. The resin was also traditionally used as a cold remedy and, during the Civil War, it was made into an ointment used on combat injuries. The wood is used for paper manufacture and is also a popular Christmas tree.

State Ranking Justification

There are several hundred occurrences statewide, but very few are currently documented by New York Natural Heritage. A few documented occurrences have good viability and a few are protected on public land or private conservation land. This community is limited to the northern portion of the state and is concentrated in the Central Adirondacks where there are several very large, high quality examples. The current trend of this community is probably stable for occurrences on public land and private conservation land, or declining slightly elsewhere due to moderate threats related to development pressure, recreational overuse, and to a lesser extent logging.

Short-term Trends

The number and acreage of balsam flats in New York have probably remained stable at protected sites or declined slightly elsewhere in recent decades as a result of logging, agriculture, and other development.

Long-term Trends

The number and acreage of balsam flats in New York have probably declined substantially from historical numbers likely correlated with past logging, agiculture, and other development.

Conservation and Management


Threats to forests in general include changes in land use (e.g., clearing for development), forest fragmentation (e.g., roads), and invasive species (e.g., insects, diseases, and plants). Other threats may include over-browsing by deer, fire suppression, and air pollution (e.g., ozone and acidic deposition). When occurring as expansive forests, the largest threat to the integrity of balsam flats are activities that fragment the forest into smaller pieces. These activities, such as road building and other development, restrict the movement of species and seeds throughout the entire forest, an effect that often results in loss of those species that require larger blocks of habitat (e.g., black bear, bobcat, birds). Additionally, fragmented forests provide decreased benefits to neighboring societies from services these societies often substantially depend on (e.g., clean water, mitigation of floods and droughts, pollination in agricultural fields, and pest control) (Daily et al. 1997). Balsam flats are threatened by development (e.g., residential), either directly within the community or in the surrounding landscape. Other threats include habitat alteration (e.g., roads, railroads, excessive logging, flooding of adjacent waterbodies), and recreational overuse (e.g., ATVs, snowmobiles, hiking trails, campgounds, trash dumping). A few balsam flats are threatened by invasive species from adjacent developed areas. Intentionally planted spruce or pine species may become established and become a minor threat to a few examples. Balsam flats may be threatened by acid rain deposition, but perhaps less than other higher elevation natural communities (US EPA 2005). Spruce budworm may be considered a threat to occurrences of balsam flats that experience extreme outbreaks, especially if it coincides with other stresses and reduces tree regeneration. The spruce budworm (Choristoneura fumiferana) is a native insect that creates canopy gaps in spruce and fir forests of the Eastern United States and Canada. Since 1909, there have been waves of budworm out breaks throughout the Eastern United States and Canada. The states most often affected are Maine, New Hampshire, New York, Michigan, Minnesota, and Wisconsin (Kucera and Orr 1981). Balsam fir is the primary host tree for budworm in the Eastern United States, although white, red, and black spruce are known to be suitable host trees. Spruce budworm may also feed on tamarack, pine, and hemlock. Spruce mixed with balsam fir is more likely to show signs of budworm infestation than spruce in pure stands (Kucera and Orr 1981).

Conservation Strategies and Management Practices

Management should focus on activities that help maintain regeneration of the species associated with this community. Although it is not currently a threat to balsam flats, deer have been shown to have negative effects on forest understories (Miller et al. 1992, Augustine & French 1998, Knight 2003). Management efforts should strive to ensure that regenerating trees and shrubs are not so heavily browsed by deer that they cannot replace overstory trees when required to do so. Avoid cutting old-growth examples and encourage selective logging areas that are under active forestry.

Development and Mitigation Considerations

Strive to minimize fragmentation of large forest blocks by focusing development on forest edges, minimizing the width of roads and road corridors extending into forests, and designing cluster developments that minimize the spatial extent of the development. Development projects with the least impact on large forests and all the plants and animals living within these forests are those developments built on brownfields or other previously developed land. These projects have the added benefit of matching sustainable development practices (for example, see: The President's Council on Sustainable Development 1999 final report, US Green Building Council's Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design certification process at

Inventory Needs

Inventory any remaining large and/or old-growth examples across the state. Continue searching for large sites in excellent to good condition (A- to AB-ranked).

Research Needs

Research the composition and collect sufficient plot data for balsam flats statewide in order to characterize variations and clearly separate this community from spruce flats, spruce-fir swamp, and spruce-northern hardwood forests. Regularly assess the presence and degree of impact that spruce budworm has on this community.

Rare Species

  • Diphasiastrum complanatum (Northern Ground Cedar) (guide)
  • Salix pyrifolia (Balsam Willow) (guide)


New York State Distribution

This community is known from the lower elevation parts of the Adirondack Mountain region and on the Tug Hill Plateau.

Global Distribution

Balsam flats are limited to northern fringe of the Eastern United States and much of southeastern Canada. In the United States, this community is probably confined to higher elevations such as the Rensselaer Plateau of New York and the Berkshire Plateau of Massachusetts. This range is estimated to span north to central Ontario and Quebec, west to Minnesota, south to northern Michigan and northern New York, and east to Nova Scotia and Newfoundland.

Best Places to See

  • Lewis Preserve Wildlife Management Area
  • Blue Ridge Wilderness (Hamilton County)
  • Adirondack Park
  • Tug Hill Wildlife Management Area (Lewis County)
  • Saranac Lakes Wild Forest
  • Fish Creek Pond Campground
  • Moose River Plains Wild Forest (Hamilton County)

Identification Comments

General Description

A conifer forest that occurs on moist, well-drained soils of low flats adjoining swamps, gentle low ridges, and knolls within swamps, often in a tight mosaic with spruce flats. The canopy is dominated by balsam fir (Abies balsamea) with red spruce (Picea rubens), red maple (Acer rubrum) and a variety of possible associates. Seedlings of the canopy species dominate the sparse shrub layer, and the forest floor is a carpet of bryophytes and herbs.

Characters Most Useful for Identification

Balsam flats have a canopy dominated by balsam fir (Abies balsamea), red spruce (Picea rubens), and red maple (Acer rubrum). Possible associates include eastern white pine (Pinus strobus), paper birch (Betula papyrifera), black spruce (Picea mariana), northern white cedar (Thuja occidentalis), and eastern hemlock (Tsuga canadensis). The shrub layer is sparse and primarily consists of seedlings of the canopy species (balsam fir and red maple). The forest floor is covered with a dense carpet of bryophytes, such as three-lobed bazzania (Bazzania trilobata), Schreber's feathermoss (Pleurozium schreberi), stair-step moss (Hylocomium splendens), and hypnum moss (Hypnum imponens), and herbs such as goldthread (Coptis trifolia), evergreen woodfern (Dryopteris intermedia), bunchberry (Cornus canadensis), wild sarsaparilla (Aralia nudicaulis), and three-seeded sedge (Carex trisperma).

Elevation Range

Known examples of this community have been found at elevations between 1,100 feet and 2,559 feet.

Best Time to See

Many of the canopy species of this community are best recognized during the growing season (May to September); the luxurious carpet of mosses can be observed much of the year when snow is absent.

Balsam Flats Images


International Vegetation Classification Associations

This New York natural community encompasses all or part of the concept of the following International Vegetation Classification (IVC) natural community associations. These are often described at finer resolution than New York's natural communities. The IVC is developed and maintained by NatureServe.

  • Black Spruce - Red Spruce / Schreber's Big Red-stem Moss Forest (CEGL006361)
  • Red Spruce - Balsam Fir - Paper Birch Forest (CEGL006273)

NatureServe Ecological Systems

This New York natural community falls into the following ecological system(s). Ecological systems are often described at a coarser resolution than New York's natural communities and tend to represent clusters of associations found in similar environments. The ecological systems project is developed and maintained by NatureServe.

  • Acadian Low-Elevation Spruce-Fir-Hardwood Forest (CES201.565)
  • Acadian Sub-boreal Spruce Flat (CES201.562)

Characteristic Species

  • Trees > 5m

    • Abies balsamea (balsam fir)
    • Acer rubrum var. rubrum (common red maple)
    • Picea rubens (red spruce)
    • Pinus strobus (white pine)
  • Shrubs 2 - 5m

    • Abies balsamea (balsam fir)
  • Shrubs < 2m

    • Abies balsamea (balsam fir)
    • Acer rubrum var. rubrum (common red maple)
  • Herbs

    • Aralia nudicaulis (wild sarsaparilla)
    • Carex trisperma (three-fruited sedge)
    • Coptis trifolia (gold-thread)
    • Cornus canadensis (bunchberry)
    • Dryopteris intermedia (evergreen wood fern, fancy wood fern, common wood fern)
  • Nonvascular plants

    • Bazzania trilobata
    • Dicranum scoparium
    • Hylocomium splendens
    • Hypnum imponens
    • Pleurozium schreberi

Similar Ecological Communities

  • Spruce-fir swamp (guide)
    Spruce-fir swamps are palustrine communities that occur within a basin or in association with a pond or stream. The canopy is dominated by spruces (Picea spp.), balsam fir (Abies balsamea), and red maple. Unlike balsam flats, the shrub layer of spruce-fir swamps has characteristic wetland species such as mountain holly (Nemopanthus mucronatus), wild raisin (Viburnum nudum var. cassinoides), and winterberry (Ilex verticillata).
  • Spruce flats (guide)
    Spruce flats are similar to balsam flats in environmental setting and vegetation structure and often occur with them in a tight mosaic, but are dominated by red spruce and red maple, with possible associates that include yellow birch, black cherry, and eastern hemlock.


Trees > 5m
Shrubs 2 - 5m
Shrubs < 2m
Nonvascular plants

Percent cover

This figure helps visualize the structure and "look" or "feel" of a typical Balsam Flats. Each bar represents the amount of "coverage" for all the species growing at that height. Because layers overlap (shrubs may grow under trees, for example), the shaded regions can add up to more than 100%.

Additional Resources


Augustine, A.J. and L.E. French. 1998. Effects of white-tailed deer on populations of an understory forb in fragmented deciduous forests. Conservation Biology 12:995-1004.

Braun, E. Lucy. 1950. Deciduous forests of Eastern North America. Macmillan Publ. Co. Inc., New York, N.Y.

Daily, G.C., S. Alexander, P.R. Ehrlich, L. Goulder, J. Lubchenco, P. Matson, H.A. Mooney, S. Postel, S.H. Schneider, D. Tilman, and G.M. Woodwell. 1997. Ecosystem Services: benefits supplied to human societies by natural ecosystems. Issues In Ecology 2:1-16.

Edinger, G. J., D. J. Evans, S. Gebauer, T. G. Howard, D. M. Hunt, and A. M. Olivero (editors). 2014. Ecological Communities of New York State. Second Edition. A revised and expanded edition of Carol Reschke’s Ecological Communities of New York State. New York Natural Heritage Program, New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, Albany, NY.

Edinger, Gregory J., D.J. Evans, Shane Gebauer, Timothy G. Howard, David M. Hunt, and Adele M. Olivero (editors). 2002. Ecological Communities of New York State. Second Edition. A revised and expanded edition of Carol Reschke's Ecological Communities of New York State. (Draft for review). New York Natural Heritage Program, New York State Department of Environmental Conservation. Albany, NY. 136 pp.

Eyre, F.H., ed. 1980. Forest cover types of the United States and Canada. Society of American Foresters, Washington, D.C.

Heimburger, C.C. 1934. Forest-type studies in the Adirondack Region. Cornell University Experiment Station Memoir 165, Ithaca, New York.

Knight, T.M. 2003. Effects of herbivory and its timing across populations of Trillium grandiflorum (Liliaceae). American Journal of Botany 90:1207-1214.

Kucera, D.R. and P.W. Orr. 1981. Spruce budworm in the eastern United States. Forest Insect and Disease Leaflet 160. U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Washington, D.C.

McMartin, B. 1994. The Great Forest of the Adirondacks. North Country Books, Utica, NY. 240 pp.

Miller, S.G., S.P. Bratton, and J. Hadidian. 1992. Impacts of white-tailed deer on endangered and threatened vascular plants. Natural Areas Journal 12:67-74.

New York Natural Heritage Program. 2024. New York Natural Heritage Program Databases. Albany, NY.

Reschke, Carol. 1990. Ecological communities of New York State. New York Natural Heritage Program, New York State Department of Environmental Conservation. Latham, NY. 96 pp. plus xi.

United States Envoronmental Protection Agency. 2005. Effects of Acid Rain: Forests. Available on line at Accessed March 2, 2005.

Zon, R. 1914. Balsam fir. Bull. U.S. Department Agriculture No. 55:1-68.


About This Guide

Information for this guide was last updated on: December 14, 2023

Please cite this page as:
New York Natural Heritage Program. 2024. Online Conservation Guide for Balsam flats. Available from: Accessed April 16, 2024.