Sunday, March 23, 2003
The Record, Hackensack, NJ
Celebrating an environmental victory
By ANDY WILLNER and BILL SHEEHAN
WE'VE ALL FOUND little to cheer about lately but a stunning victory in the Hackensack Meadowlands offers us all reason to pause, take pride in ourselves, and celebrate the rough-and-tumble workings of democracy.
Earlier this month, after a seven-year battle, the Mills Corporation surrendered its claim to the Empire Tract, 600 acres of Hackensack Meadowlands wetland on which the company planned to build the biggest mall east of the Mississippi.
Mills has been awarded a bid for redevelopment of the Continental Airlines Arena site by the NJ Sports and Exposition Authority, and has agreed to transfer the privately held Empire Tract to a public land steward for permanent protection.
Mills yielded in its original plan thanks to relentless pressure applied by a massive and diverse coalition that came to include concerned citizens, environmental groups, local communities, many public officials, and government agencies.
The beauty of the peace treaty agreed to last month is that it has only winners. Mills gets to build. Labor benefits from the construction jobs arena redevelopment will provide. The NJSEA will be relieved of the burden of arena-related indebtedness. The people get to preserve their marsh. And great blue herons, egrets, and striped bass continue to have a place to live in a region where wildlands are exceedingly scarce and precious.
The protection of the Empire Tract is truly a watershed event for our region. It represents a great awakening of grassroots groups and largely blue collar communities to the value of urban wildlands. Instead of looking to Yosemite or the Grand Canyon for our excursions to the Great Outdoors, we now know we need look no farther than our own back yard for wilderness and eco-adventure.
Through the long struggle with Mills, our region has also begun to move from a politics of exclusion - where special interests could curry unfair political favor behind closed doors - toward a process of democratic inclusion, where the people are being given a rightful place at the table.
During the arena bid selection process, for example, the Sports Authority invited environmental groups to contribute advice. While we offered no endorsements, we provided useful expertise on natural resource issues.
As the stewards of the Hudson-Raritan Estuary and the Hackensack River, we're glad to see the battle for the Meadowlands coming to a close and to see Mills concede to our long-held position that the company had excellent upland alternatives for development.
Setting animosity aside, we look forward to the next steps. We encourage Mills, in a move of good faith, to withdraw its application for a permit with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to develop the Empire Tract. We await the transfer of the deed for the tract out of private hands and back into the public trust.
We look ahead to working with Mills and the state agencies to assure that the redevelopment of the arena site is both well-planned and environmentally sound, and that the public's needs for traffic and stormwater management and on-site wetlands protection are met.
Ultimately we await the moment when the entire 7,000 acres of the Hackensack Meadowlands, the last precious remnant of what was once a vast 20,000-acre marsh, is preserved for the benefit of wildlife and for the permanent enjoyment of the public. At the heart of that great urban preserve will be the Empire Tract, a crown jewel of New Jersey's public trust lands.
But that all lies in the future. For today, we want to thank all those who stood with us and with their communities; those who drew a line in the marsh and declared that not a single acre of wetlands should be bargained away.
For today, we should all celebrate the people's victory in the marsh.
Andrew J. Willner is executive director of NY/NJ Baykeeper, the Sandy Hook-based environmental watchdog for the Hudson-Raritan Estuary. Captain Bill Sheehan is executive director of Hackensack Riverkeeper, Inc., the citizen-steward of the Hackensack River watershed.