July 16, 2005
The New York Times
Splendor in the Grass; Ecotourists Find Wild Beauty in the Marshes of the Meadowlands
By Tina Kelley
ABOARD EDWARD ABBEY, near Secaucus, N.J. - This area is better known to most as Exit 15W on the New Jersey Turnpike, or the flight path out of Newark Liberty International Airport, or the railroad crossing on New Jersey Transit's main line. But beneath these human landmarks, unnoticed and as foundational as a heartbeat, lie dirt, water, grass and life.
While most ecotourism destinations promise colorful rain forests and a complete escape from interstate transportation hubs, the Hackensack River, which empties into Newark Bay, offers biodiversity, a great comeback story and practical lessons in preservation. Also, quick rail access from Penn Station.
For more than 10 years, the Hackensack Riverkeeper, an environmental group, and the New Jersey Meadowlands Commission have been offering an increasing number of boat trips on the river, and now their pontoon boats often cross paths near sunset.
During recent trips with each group, the noises of the highway and airplanes competed with the chortling riffs of the marsh wren, but when the captain of one of the boats cut the motor back in the deeper marshy reaches, a lulling silence took over. Great egrets flew above the spartina grass framed by the smoggy outlines of the Empire State Building, about seven miles away. A black-crowned night-heron waited for baitfish next to a culvert under the turnpike.
The tours visit Mill Creek Marsh as well as the 900-acre Saw Mill Creek Wildlife Management Area, which is marked with numbered signs to keep canoeists from getting lost among the rushes.
''The open water between us and Newark is a mud flat at low tide,'' Bill Sheehan, the founder of the Hackensack Riverkeeper, said as his boat, the Abbey, headed downstream. ''It's nothing but mud. And the dinner bells ring for all the species that live here.''
The guides on both tours spoke of battles both natural and political, fights between developers and preservationist, and problems with the Meadowlands' 34 garbage dumps. They also discussed the struggle between invasive phragmites, the all-too-common common reeds that dominate the wetlands, and spartina, also known as smooth cord grass, which provides shelter for fish larvae and energy-rich seed for birds.
Of phragmites, Mr. Sheehan said, ''It's green most of the time, and it ain't condos.''
Kyle Spendiff, a wetlands specialist with the Meadowlands Commission who punctuated his tour with the names of birds he spotted along the way, said the reeds formed a useful windbreak for ducks and helped contain contaminated sediments. But it has blanketed over far too many acres.
The guides described how the Meadowlands region was formed by glaciers two miles high, then emerged from the bottom of Glacial Lake Hackensack, and was populated by wooly mammoths and 600-pound beavers. Over the centuries, the Dutch built dikes for it, the local mosquito commissions tried to drain it and trash haulers dumped garbage on it.
Mr. Spendiff told a group of 10 sightseers about the river's condition early in the last century, tainted by agricultural runoff, untreated pig waste from nearby rendering plants, and 10 million gallons a day of superheated water from an upstream power plant, all laced with household garbage by the ton.
''Twenty or thirty years ago it was unthinkable that someone would want to build a hotel with a marina on the Hackensack River,'' he said, pointing out the Red Roof Inn in Secaucus.
On his tour, Mr. Sheehan, who grew up in Secaucus, also recalled the river's murkier past. ''People kept their boats here because the barnacles wouldn't grow,'' he said.
As the landfills were capped and the provisions of the federal Clean Water Act were enforced, the river slowly became cleaner, and nature gradually recovered. In the 1980's, for example, an inventory of fish in the river found that 85 percent of them were tiny, pollution-tolerant mummichog, while a Meadowlands Commission report released in March mentioned 39 species of fish, including much larger species like striped bass and white perch.
Mr. Sheehan recalls how garbage fires burned across the Meadowlands in the 1960's, when open dumping was common.
''In those days you'd see maybe hundreds of thousands of gulls on garbage,'' he said. ''Today they're in balance. They would blacken the sky, and they'd all sleep on the water at night. They slept in the water because if they slept on the garbage, the rats would get them.''
Now, he said, owls and northern harriers are more common. ''A rat wouldn't last 10 minutes,'' he said.
Eventually, people started to appreciate the worn landscape. The Riverkeeper group estimates that 30,000 people have toured the marshlands since its trips began in 1995.
Passengers on the Abbey sounded as if they had discovered a secret garden behind the highway lanes.
''I never knew it was so beautiful,'' said Sandy Anton of Westfield, a passenger. ''You drive back and forth to the city and you never even think.''
Before founding Hackensack Riverkeeper, Mr. Sheehan was a professional drummer and put in 20 years in the taxi business as a driver and a dispatcher. (''I like to characterize that period in my life as honing my communication skills,'' he said.) He started volunteering with the New York/New Jersey Baykeeper environmental group in the early 1990's, before starting the nonprofit Hackensack Riverkeeper, which now has five full-time employees.
The group runs two to four cruises a week from May through October, and asks for a donation of $20 for adults and $10 for children. It also rents canoes and kayaks from Laurel Hill Park in Secaucus.
The Meadowlands Commission tours cost $15, which helps support the work of its environmental center.
Mr. Sheehan said that at first he was slightly bothered by the idea of a state agency working in the same market, but then reconsidered.
''If people saw the potential for the Meadowlands, it didn't matter who did the talking,'' he said. ''The river would talk for itself.''
Boat tours are given by the New Jersey Meadowlands Commission and the Hackensack Riverkeeper, an environmental group.