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The Highlands of Connecticut, New Jersey, New York, and Pennsylvania

About the Highlands

Looking out towards the New York City skyline from the New Jersey, Ramapo Mountains. Photograph by George M. Aronson. A rugged landscape of forested mountains and hills stretches along the western edge of the coastal metropolis; these are the Highlands of Connecticut, New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania. Rising above the urbanization of the eastern seaboard, the Highlands are a series of discontinuous, steep-sided ridges and narrow valleys.

In these satellite images, the northeast-to-southwest orientation of the Highlands is apparent across New York and New Jersey, where lakes and reservoirs speckle the mostly forested region. In Connecticut, the Highlands’ valleys are oriented in a nearly north-to-south direction. In Pennsylvania, the Highlands form a chain of ridges and hills that culminate in the dramatic heights above the city of Reading. Pennsylvania’s Highlands region includes the forested hills south and west of the city.

The region’s rivers are often born in the Highlands; their courses conform to the region’s corrugated structure. The major rivers of the 4-state area, the Hudson, Delaware, Schuylkill and Susquehanna, slice through the Highlands’ topography.

This nationally significant landscape yields benefits and resources for the surrounding population. Its mountains and lakes provide many opportunities for recreation a short drive from cities. Its forests provide wood and game, and they shelter hundreds of rare and beautiful plants and animals. Its proximity to the vast metropolis puts all these benefits at risk. Land use change in the Highlands threatens to erase, fragment, and degrade the forests, streams, plant and animal communities that constitute the Highlands’ gift of life.

The Highlands’ Resources
The Highlands are covered mostly in forests and farmland. The majority of the region’s timberland is privately owned, most of it in small lots of 50 acres or less. Large, unbroken tracts of forest are home to many species, especially large mammals such as black bear, bobcat, and river otter. The Highlands are a rich mosaic of habitats, the result of its many water bodies, rugged terrain, varied soils, and several forest types. Possessing wetlands, bogs, swamps, glades, ravines, ridges, and large tracts of forest interspersed with grassland, pasture and cropland, the Highlands support diverse plant communities and a large number of animal species; it is rich in biological diversity. More than 100 plants and almost 50 animals listed on Federal or State inventories of species that are endangered, threatened, or of concern find harbor in the Highlands. The Highlands are vital to neotropical birds, tiny songbirds which fly above the unbroken forest during their migration and shelter there during the day.

Abundant rainfall replenishes the Highlands’ surface and ground waters, vital to an urban population of several million people; the forests of the Highlands are critical to maintaining the quality of its waters. Rain that falls on the forest soaks quickly into the forest soil; it emerges at countless springs and seeps, it flows down mountain streams to collect in ponds and lakes. Trees shade Highlands streams, making a suitable habitat for trout and other fish.

Future of the Highlands
The Highlands’ population is growing, and the trend in development over the past two decades has been an accelerated pace and a greatly expanded pattern. The conversion of farms and forests into urban land has other consequences, especially with regard to surface waters. Where impervious surface exceeds ten percent of the drainage area, stream quality is impaired. Where more than half of a drainage basin is altered by development, the quality of surface and ground water suffers.

Forested hills that stretch to the horizon are characteristic of the Highlands. This beautiful landscape is a solar-powered factory that yields pure water, sequesters carbon, refreshes the westerly wind, and produces a renewable resource that humans can use for shelter, furniture, and warmth. Without their forests, the Highlands would produce water degraded in quality and quantity; their watersheds would be a source of floods and misery to the communities below them.

Protecting the water means preserving the Highlands, preserving the Highlands means conserving the forest. The forest is a community of living things, it is resilient and it can recover from disturbance. But forests do not recover from paving or from clearing for urban uses; change such as that is, for all practical purposes, permanent.

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Page Contact: Keith Tackett
July 11, 2011