Spartina alterniflora Carolinian Zone Herbaceous VegetationWork on a comprehensive National Vegetation Classification began in the early 1990s, when the Ecology Department of The Nature Conservancy (now with NatureServe), the Ecological Society of America (ESA) and federal agencies recognized a need to collaborate on the creation of a standardized, scientifically credible North American vegetation classification.  In 1997 the first vegetation standard was adopted by the Federal Geographic Data Committee (FGDC), and a first version was released in 1998. In 2008, the current, dynamic standard was approved and a second version was released in 2016.  Following the formal release updates are managed by the Panel on Vegetation Classification through a peer review process.

Detailed Timeline – Development of the National Vegetation Classification

  • Pre-1990s – No national vegetation classification exists. There are a variety of classification systems for specific themes (e.g., Cowardin et al. 1979 for wetlands; Eyre 1980 Forest cover types of the U.S.).
  • 1991 – The FGDC Vegetation Subcommittee was established.
  • 1993 – The Ecological Society of America, The Nature Conservancy, USGS and the FGDC Vegetation Subcommittee initiate discussions as to how to jointly develop a US National Vegetation Classification.
  • 1995 – Ecological Society of America formally establishes the Vegetation Classification Panel as a special committee. This committee is formed by a small group of plant community ecologists with the intent of advancing national vegetation classification in the U.S.  Timeline_nvc
  • 1997 – The first National Vegetation Classification Standard is adopted by the FGDC Subcommittee (FGDC 1997). That Standard sets a 5-level hierarchy down to the formation level. The existing types described at the alliance and association level were not formally adopted as a part of that standard.
  • 1998 – The Nature Conservancy publishes Terrestrial Vegetation of the United States (Grossman et al. 1998; Anderson et al. 1998) containing a list of over 4,000 associations and 1500 alliances.
  • 1999 –A Memorandum of Understanding is formalized between the ESA Vegetation Panel, The Nature Conservancy/NatureServe, the U.S. Geological Survey and the U.S. Forest Service and the U.S. Federal Geographic Data Committee (FGDC), for the purpose of forming a partnership to develop, implement, and maintain the National Vegetation Classification (NVC) system.
  • 2003 –In response to issues related to mapping the 1997 hierarchy, NatureServe publishes the Ecological Systems Classification (Comer et al. 2003). Ecological Systems are defined as “…a group of plant community types (associations) that tend to co-occur within landscapes with similar ecological processes, substrates, and/or environmental gradients.”
  • 2004 – The ESA Vegetation Panel data subcommittee develops and releases VegBank (http://vegbank.org) as a formal archive for vegetation plot data to support the NVC (Peet et al. 2012).
  • 2008 –Version 2 of the FGDC National Vegetation Classification Standard is formally adopted (FGDC 2008).  The new Standard is approved as the first dynamic content standard, allowing for efficient evolution of the content as the scientific body of knowledge continues to grow. The dynamic standard reflects the recommendations of the ESA Vegetation Panel as subsequently described in Jennings et al. 2009
  • 2009 – ESA Vegetation Panel is enlisted to help oversee the review and adoption of the initial content of the NVC Standard, and to establish the processes for managing the dynamic content through continued peer review and publishing of the Proceedings of the NVC.
  •             – NatureServe launches revisions to the USNVC, based on the new standard, working with the FGDC Hierarchy Revisions Working Group, federal agencies the ESA Vegetation panel. The goal is to create “initial content” at all levels that serves as the starting point for the ongoing development of the USNVC
  • 2010– Setting the stage for the new NVC Classification
    FGDC Vegetation Subcommittee – Hierarchy Revisions Working Group revises the upper levels (Formation Class, Formation Subclass, and Formation) of the USNVC  (Faber-Langendoen et al. 2014, 2016).
  • 2012-2015 ESA Vegetation Panel works with NatureServe to screen and review middle and lower levels of the USNVC.
  • 2014 A new MOU is signed by NatureServe, ESA, the USFS, and USGS that formalizes their roles in support of the maintenance and development of the USNVC.
  • 2016 Launch of the USNVC for the Natural Vegetation of the Conterminous U.S. The USNVC partners release the full initial content of the USNVC, comprehensive for the top 6 levels for the entire U.S., and for alliances and associations for the lower 48 states. The ESA Panel launches a Peer Review Board in support of ongoing improving of the USNVC content.

Ecologist from the U.S & Canada came together in 2014 for a workshop to review and finalize descriptions for the Macrogroups of the Conterminous U.S.


  • Anderson, M., P. Bourgeron, M. T. Bryer, R. Crawford, L. Engelking, D. Faber-Langendoen, M. Gallyoun, K. Goodin, D. H. Grossman, S. Landaal, K. Metzler, K. D. Patterson, M. Pyne, M. Reid, L. Sneddon, and A. S. Weakley. 1998.    International classification of ecological communities: terrestrial vegetation of the United States. Volume II. The National Vegetation Classification System: list of types. The Nature Conservancy, Arlington, Virginia, USA.
  • Comer, P., D. Faber-Langendoen, R. Evans, S. Gawler, C. Josse, G. Kittel, S. Menard, M. Pyne, M. Reid, K. Schulz, K. Snow, and J. Teague. 2003. Ecological Systems of the United States: A Working Classification of U.S. Terrestrial Systems. NatureServe, Arlington, Virginia.
  • Cowardin, L.M., V. Carter, F.C. Golet, and E.T. LaRoe. 1979. Classification of Wetlands and Deepwater Habitats of the United States. U.S. Department of the Interior, Fish and Wildlife Service, Washington, DC. FWS/OBS-79/31.
  • Eyre, F.H., 1980, Forest Cover Types of the United States and Canada: Society of. American Foresters, 148p.
  • Faber-Langendoen D, Keeler-Wolf T, Meidinger D, D. Tart, B. Hoagland, C. Josse, G. Navarro, S. Ponomarenko, J. P. Saucier, A. Weakley, P. Comer. 2014. EcoVeg: a new approach to vegetation description and classification. Ecological Monographs 84: 533–61 (erratum 85:473).
  • Faber-Langendoen, D., T. Keeler-Wolf, D. Meidinger, C. Josse, A.S. Weakley, D. Tart, G. Navarro, B. Hoagland, S. Ponomarenko, G. Fults, and E. Helmer.  2016.  Classification and Description of World Formation Types. Gen. Tech. Rep. RMRS-GTR-346. Fort Collins, CO: U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Research Station. 222 p.
  • FGDC. (Federal Geographic Data Committee). 1997. Vegetation Classification Standard. FGDC-STD-005. Vegetation Subcommittee, Federal Geographic Data Committee, FGDC Secretariat, U.S. Geological Survey. Reston, VA. 58p.
  • FGDC (Federal Geographic Data Committee). 2008. National Vegetation Classification Standard, Version 2 FGDC-STD-005-2008. Reston, VA: Vegetation Subcommittee, Federal Geographic Data Committee, FGDC Secretariat, US Geological Survey.
  • Grossman, D. H., D. Faber-Langendoen, A. S. Weakley, M. Anderson, P. Bourgeron, R. Crawford, K. Goodin, S. Landaal, K. Metzler, K. D. Patterson, M. Pyne, M. Reid, and L. Sneddon. 1998. International classification of ecological communities: terrestrial vegetation of the United States. Volume I. The National Vegetation Classification System: development, status, and applications. The Nature Conservancy, Arlington, Virginia, USA
  • Peet RK, Lee MT, Jennings MD, and Faber-Langendoen D. 2012. VegBank – a permanent, open-access archive for vegetation-plot data. Biodivers Ecol 4: 233–41.