The Mid-Atlantic Highlands, which give birth to many of the streams feeding the Chesapeake Bay and the Gulf of Mexico, are getting some help to address a long legacy of environmental and economic problems.

A new state-federal program aimed at healing the highlands may also help the Chesapeake. But program leaders say the benefits will come from talking less about the Bay and more about the mountains.

"We'll be doing things that benefit the Bay but from the perspective of local needs," said Tom DeMoss of the EPA. It is the first and only EPA regional initiative that is not defined by a water body and its surrounding drainage area.

The EPA, as well as the states of Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia and West Virginia, are partners in the Mid-Atlantic Highlands Action Program, which was launched in 2006. In the spring of 2007, all four governors signed a charter to formalize their partnership and launch pilot projects that will serve as models for future efforts.

"The mid-Atlantic region offers an array of recreational opportunities and thousands of acres of public lands that draw visitors from throughout the world, yet also supports robust timber, agriculture and mining industries that have been the mainstay of our economy since colonial times," said Pennsylvania Governor Edward Rendell when unveiling the program.

"Our challenge is to seek common ground and develop policies that will manage the many demands on this land while preserving the natural beauty and heritage of the Appalachian Mountains."

Both the Chesapeake Bay and Gulf of Mexico collect water from the Mid-Atlantic Highlands. The headwaters of four major rivers are born there, including the Ohio, Tennessee, Potomac and James. The Shenandoah, Susquehanna, Monongahela, Allegheny, and New rivers flow through it.

The Mid-Atlantic Highlands cover 79,000 square miles, and include roughly half of the Chesapeake Bay watershed. What happens in the region, particularly to forests, has a direct impact on the Chesapeake-shrinking and degraded forests can sharply increase exports of nitrogen, a major Bay pollutant, downstream.

A report from the nonprofit Canaan Valley Institute, which bolstered support for the program, details the region's rich ecology and cultural heritage.

Its forests-the largest interior hardwood forest in the world's temperate latitudes-harbor an unusually rich mix of plant and animal species. Its species are among the most diverse of any North American forest.

Pennsylvania's expansive forests contain the largest concentration of scarlet tanagers-a species dependent on large woodlands-in the world. Many of the region's streams contain not only brook trout, but also many rare and endangered mussels.

There are also more than 6,200 caves in the mid-Atlantic highlands, which shelter a less visible but fascinating habitat for cave crickets, albino spiders, blind salamanders and endangered bats.

In 2000, the Nature Conservancy made the region one of its top conservation priorities because of its biological richness.

National heritage abounds here too. The Mid-Atlantic Highlands include colonial forts and battle sites and provided the gateway for western expansion. Its many Civil War landmarks are a major draw for tourists. Mountain living, crafts and music all convey the distinctive flavor of the Appalachians.

But the region's ecosystem-and many of its communities-are under mounting stress.

Forests are increasingly fragmented by roads, unplanned development, mountaintop mining, power lines and timber harvesting, reducing their habitat and water quality benefits.

According to the institute's report, 47 percent of the forests are in fair or poor condition because of fragmentation. For birds, 57 percent of the region's habitat is in only fair or poor condition, as is 67 percent of fish habitat. Riparian habitats have been especially hard-hit.

Thousands of miles of streams suffer from acid mine drainage. Streams and forests have been degraded by decades of some of the most acidic rain to fall anywhere in the nation. Sewage from antiquated septic systems and treatment plants have contaminated streams in many areas.

The highlands have also experienced intense use of its natural resources for centuries, as small business and large industries drew coal, timber and oil from its land. The towns and families of the region have suffered as these operations have shrunk, closed shop and often left a damaged landscape in their wake.

While growth in some areas of the Bay watershed has led to increased jobs, income and services, many parts of the Mid-Atlantic Highlands remain impoverished, with low education levels and high rates of unemployment and poverty.

Despite this complex web of problems, the region has historically received fewer resources and less attention than causes with a higher profile.

"The Mid-Atlantic Highlands are a very special place, but they've been somewhat neglected," DeMoss said. "They don't have a glamorous attraction like the Chesapeake and San Francisco bays of the world. We've been missing the target in part because we haven't brought this specialness forward."

To turn that around, the Mid-Atlantic Highlands Action Program is developing and supporting projects that address three related goals: restoring damaged ecosystems, revitalizing communities and supporting local culture.

Traditionally, both government and nonprofit groups have approached these as separate issues, but the Mid-Atlantic Highlands Action Program hopes to change that.

It envisions a network of government, nonprofit, academic and business partners through which environmental restoration creates paying jobs; sustainable resource management becomes the norm; and special places are protected. The combined stewardship of natural and cultural heritage resources would, in turn, drive a more vibrant tourism industry.

The EPA has spent $3 million on the program to date. Those funds have seen a 20-50 percent match from the partner states and other federal agencies like the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

A program liaison in each of the partner states is developing and supporting state-specific projects, aided by the Canaan Valley Institute and other partner organizations. At the same time, they are working to inventory the "green infrastructure" of the region-its river and forest corridors-and find places where restoration and economic benefits overlap.

Paul Zeph of the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection is one of the people tasked with this job. As the Pennsylvania liaison for the Mid-Atlantic Highlands Action Program, he understands that solutions for the land and solutions for the economy go hand in hand.

"We're looking for places where restoration or protection efforts will help the local economy and where we have existing efforts on the ground that we can add to," Zeph said.

His first efforts have focused on greenways and river towns, where there are plenty of opportunities for tourists to enjoy hiking, birding, hunting, fishing and boating. The Kittatiny Ridge, just north of Harrisburg, emerged as one of the most important and poorly protected areas in the state, and Zeph is working with local governments and other partners to conserve land along the ridge.

In West Virginia, Edward Hamrick of the Department of Environmental Protection has been working to neutralize acidic drainage into Abrams Creek and restore 25 miles of trout habitat. In the Coal River watershed near Charleston, he is working with local groups and state agencies to repair damaged stream beds, improve wastewater treatment and develop a water trail.

He is also supporting projects on Horseshoe Run near the town of Parsons to protect property and infrastructure from erosion. These projects preserve existing economic opportunities and improve biological resources, such as native trout.

Leadership training has been important in Maryland, where Paul Kazyak of the Department of Natural Resources is working with adults and youth to develop the locally based voices and defenders of the Mid-Atlantic highlands forests, streams and habitats.

At the same time, he is actively seeking opportunities to encourage economic growth, especially through green industry such as solar or wind-powered energy production, or year-round agriculture in state-of-the-art greenhouses. Kazyak believes reclaimed mine land and other rural settings could be excellent sites for these types of business.

"Linking jobs and the environment is the only way to win meaningful, widespread success for both," Kazyak said. "You really can't get people to care about biodiversity unless they have a good job."

In Virginia, Faye Cooper with the Department of Conservation Recreation is working on several projects, such as conservation in the Shenandoah Valley. She is also helping with a Pennington Gap greenway and the restoration of brook trout along Smith Creek in Rockingham County. She's found lots of need for partnerships.

"There are lots of programs and services out there, but they don't communicate well or collaborate," Cooper said. "The missing link has been a coordinated effort, and that's what we can offer. Hopefully, it will take root and grow."

According to the Canaan Valley Institute report, such efforts can begin transforming " a legacy of scarred landscapes and underserved people into a promising future of sound environmental and socioeconomic stewardship."

Over time, advocates hope the benefits also flow downstream-and into the Bay.

The Mid-Atlantic Highlands

In the Mid-Atlantic Highlands, land and lives have a deep connection.

They are part of the Appalachian Mountains, covering more than 79,000 square miles between New York to North Carolina and Tennessee, bounded to the east by the Blue Ridge Mountains and to the west by the Ohio River.

The landscape encompasses mountaintop ridges, farm valleys and countless shaded streams where the rivers of the Chesapeake Bay and the Gulf of Mexico are born. City centers such as Pittsburgh, Charleston and Roanoke fall within its boundaries but, in general, rural life reigns.

For centuries, Americans nationwide have drawn on natural resources in and along the mountain chain. Its sprawling forests have long been an important source of timber. Fertile valleys yield poultry, grain and other farm products. Coal veins, which lace the region, fueled factories and homes through the close of World War II and continue to support coal-burning power plants today.

But the cost to Appalachian communities has been high. Most have not enjoyed large or long-lasting economic benefits from the goods and services they provide.

Many small towns, dependent on one employer, collapse when the industry leaves. Others grapple with low-paying or dangerous jobs, while countless streams and mountaintops bear the long-standing scars of destructive mining operations. Rural areas are especially vulnerable.

"You see it over and over again, in mining towns, mill towns and oil towns," said Jennifer Newland of the Canaan Valley Institute. "Once the resources are extracted, the industry pulls out. The population declines. Water and sewage become incredibly expensive to maintain. You can't draw new business so you can't draw people back. There's a whole region of towns like this competing against each other."

As a result, the highlands lag behind the rest of the nation in many measures of well-being, including income, education, employment and population growth.

The Canaan Valley Institute reports that the per capita income in 1989 fell below the national average in 88 percent of the region's counties. In 1990, 86 percent of the counties fell below the national high school graduation rate. Eighty-three percent of the mid-Atlantic counties have higher than average unemployment rates.

Natural resources industries, especial coal mining, have also taken a toll on the landscape. Destructive mining practices have turned streams acidic and sheared the peaks from mountains. Studies of fish, birds and insects indicate that 50-75 percent of the landscape and streams are in fair to poor condition.

"There's lot of pride in what highland communities have done, but they've paid the price for it and that price is pretty high," Newland said.