Sunday, November 2, 2003
The Times of Trenton
Urban Wilderness and Fertile Barrens
New Jersey preserves are ripe for exploration.
By Erin Murphy Sanders
It's no secret that New Jersey is the most densely populated state and has been struggling with sprawl for decades. But it may come as a surprise that two expansive areas of open space - the Meadowlands and the Pinelands - are within an hour drive of the capital.Copyright 2003 The Times.
The Meadowlands that you're probably familiar with is man-made: sports complexes, landfills, industrial buildings, and Turnpike spans. But the real Meadowlands has been called "the everglades of the north."
The real Meadowlands is the flood plain of the lower Hackensack River, stretching 35 miles from the town of Little Ferry to the city of Kearney. One- third of the original 21,000 acres of marsh, forest and meadow remain and are becoming a destination for humans and wildlife.
On a recent fall weekend, 13 Mercer County residents took a trip to the Meadowlands with the Stony Brook-Millstone Watershed Association of Pennington.
Several of the day-trippers were keen to explore the area, having read Robert Sullivan's "The Meadowlands: Wilderness Adventures at the Edge of a City" with the Watershed's Literature and the Environment Reading Group.
"The Watershed tries to help people connect with nature," said Elizabeth Hinckley, manager of the Watershed's Buttinger Nature Center. "The Meadowlands is a unique place in that most people overlook it because it's been developed and polluted. We want to get people to think about the environment not as some far-off wilderness, but part of where they live."
With Hugh Carola, program director of the Hackensack Riverkeeper Inc., as their guide, the group explored the Meadowlands on foot and by boat. A leading environmental organization in the area, the Hackensack Riverkeeper Inc., strives to protect the Hackensack River watershed through advocacy, education and conservation programs.
The first stop was the Mill Creek Marsh, a restored wetland ecosystem mitigated by the New Jersey Meadowlands Commission and hidden behind the Mill Creek Mall in Secaucus. Formerly an impenetrable field of phragmites caused by diking and drainage, now the 300-acre marsh is attractive, accessible and alive.
"It is wetlands like this that are critical to the survival of migratory birds," explained Carola, pointing out an osprey hunting for fish.
The Meadowlands is a resource in recovery. Wetlands destruction reached it height between the 1920s and 1970s, but thanks to a host of federal and state environmental laws, Carola believes the future of the Meadowlands is bright. Water quality is improving, redevelopment is the rule and closed landfills are being capped to prevent leaching.
By preserving all remaining undeveloped land, the New Jersey Meadowlands Commission's Master Plan, expected to be approved early next year, will create the Meadowlands Estuary Preserve, an 8,400-acre urban wildlife refuge surrounded by 20 million people. "It's almost miraculous," exclaims Carola.
Standing in the marsh, Fran Brooks of Ewing was struck by the incongruence of it all. With the Empire State Building as a backdrop and the roar of Turnpike traffic as the soundtrack, snowy egrets rose gracefully from the water.
In the afternoon Carola, a funny, animated storyteller, recounted the natural and human history of the Meadowlands, as he deftly piloted the pontoon boat under bridges with minimal high tide clearance.
The highlight of the cruise was the "jewel of the Meadowlands," the Saw Mill Creek Wildlife Management Area in Lyndhurst. Nature mitigated this 1,000- acre marsh, sending a 1950 storm smashing through tidal gates used to drain the area. Today, fields of spartina grass, mudflats and flowing waterways are evidence of a healthy, diverse marsh. In season, Carola says, the sound of nesting marsh wrens can be deafening and thousands of fiddler crabs populate the mudflats.
Dorothy Wardell of Princeton Township said there is a different view of the Meadowlands down on the water. "It was a treat to see the horizon in every direction, even if it was a cityscape."
The group also witnessed river stewardship in action. A river clean-up day, sponsored by the Hackensack Riverkeeper Inc., was in progress at Snipes Park in Secaucus and further down the river, an angry Carola reported trespassing dirt bikers to police.
For Helen Lee of Hopewell Township, the trip was an eye-opening experience. "I thought it was just another grungy New Jersey river that a few people are trying to save, but it was more than that. It was quite a lesson in wetlands resurrection and dreams."
The Pinelands or the Pine Barrens, as early settlers called it, has been described as "the last vast forested area on the mid-Atlantic seacoast." Established as the nation's first national reserve in 1978, it encompasses 1.1 million acres in southern New Jersey in portions of seven counties and 56 municipalities.
An innovative land-use management program protects natural resources, such as the region's 17-trillion-gallon aquifer, while focusing development and industry in designated areas.
The "heart of the Pinelands" is the 295,000-acre Preservation Area District. Visible from space at night as the only unlit area in the region, it contains vast unbroken forests, scenic rivers and farms.
Some 15 million people live within an hour drive of the Pinelands and yet many believe they are much farther away, according to Carlton Montgomery, executive director of the Pinelands Preservation Alliance, a private, nonprofit organization dedicated to protecting and preserving the Pinelands ecosystem through advocacy and education. Another misconception is that it is a monotonous forest of short, straggly pine trees.
You have to get off the road to appreciate that the Pinelands is a varied and unique environment - upland forests, Atlantic white cedar swamps, pitch pine lowlands, savannahs, coastal marshes and miles of scenic rivers.
"The Pinelands is an island of biological diversity that isn't replicated anywhere else," says Montgomery.
In recognition of its unique ecological features - including a 15,000+ acre pygmy forest, 27 wild orchid species and 95 threatened or endangered plant and animal species - the Pinelands was designated an International Biosphere Reserve by the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.
So where does one begin exploring this unique treasure? Montgomery suggests starting with one of the PPA's Pinelands Adventure programs, which include orienteering, canoeing, wilderness survival, a Jersey Devil hunt and a three-day backpacking tour of the 50-mile Batona Trail.
But you don't have to strap on a backpack to enjoy the Pinelands. There are numerous areas where you can picnic by a lake, visit an historic village or walk a short trail.
"By walking short distances you can find very pretty places," says Montgomery, "and with a little more effort you can find very isolated places where you can pretty much guarantee you're not going to see another person while you're there."
The future of the Pinelands is uncertain, says Montgomery. While the combined efforts of government and citizens have protected huge stretches of Pinelands from development, he foresees a time when the easy development opportunities around the edges will be gone and there will be pressure to lessen Pinelands protections.
The Meadowlands and the Pinelands exist as recreation destinations because of the continuous efforts of government agencies and private conservation organizations to balance development and growth with preservation and protection.