Sheehan has been an environmental activist for the Hackensack River for nearly two decades. He started as a volunteer and later became a full time Riverkeeper, looking out for the environmental well being of the river, part of a national program. As Riverkeeper, Sheehan receives a yearly salary from grants provided by various environmental organizations and corporate sponsors. The Hackensack campus of Fairleigh Dickinson University provides him with offices and he has been honored by numerous national environmental organizations for his efforts.
The Conservation Trust, created in 1999, is a state board assigned to acquire land in the Meadowlands area for preservation and environmental enhancement, and to encourage landowners to donate land within the watershed for preservation. Property acquired by the Trust thus become permanently preserved and managed in their natural or undeveloped state.
The Board of the Trust is comprised of three government officials and four appointed public members who are selected by the governor from a list of candidates proposed by various environmental organizations. Until Sheehan's appointment, the board had been one member short.
"A year ago, I would have told you that the appointment wasn't being made in order to keep the Trust from being effective," Sheehan said. "Now I don't know what to tell you. This appointment marks a whole different state philosophy on the Meadowlands than in the past."
This marks a union of two former opponents over the future of the Meadowlands and sets the stage for a dramatic new preservation effort.
Sheehan was nominated by acting Governor Donald T. DiFrancesco at the request of Alan Steinberg, executive director of the Hackensack Meadowlands Development Commission - who is also a member of the Trust. Sheehan and Steinberg have often been at odds with each other over the last few years over the potential management of the wetlands. But Steinberg said he felt that talks with Sheehan showed no significant disagreement on goals for the Meadowlands.
"I strongly recommended him for the position," said Steinberg when contacted by telephone. "And I am delighted by the appointment. As the Meadowlands move forward into the 21st Century, we want the input of the environmental and business community to help us achieve a synthesis of opinion on the future."
Sheehan said, "This shows just how much has changed in this last year. People who used to be against what I stood for are not coming over to my side. It is a thrill. I've never seen anything like it."
Development kept them apart
Since the Trust's founding in 1999, political bickering - particularly concerning the fate of the non-defunct Meadowlands master plan, called Special Area Management Plan (SAMP), kept the final seat open, since it could potentially become the deciding vote on various issues, with half the members of the board apparently supporting SAMP and half opposing it.
"This means the SAMP is dead," Sheehan said, noting, however, that he and other environmental activists have been asked to participate in a new master plan, one that will emphasize the preservation of the Meadowlands, rather than development
In 1995, after seven years of negotiation, officials from the HMDC and four other partner agencies signed a draft environmental impact statement as part of a plan that would outline the future of the environmentally-sensitive Meadowlands over the next 20 years. But disputes over the master plan left a deep division in the environmental community. The latest philosophy would seek to preserve all remaining wetlands, pushing to move proposed construction projects to non-wetland properties.
With the abandoning of the controversial SAMP - which called for a certain percentage of development in the Meadowlands - the fundamental issue blocking the final appointment vanished.
"More than just the name of the Meadowlands Commission changed this year," Sheehan said.
While HMDC officials have long maintained that their role was more complicated than Sheehan and other environmentalists claim, the HMDC asked and received permission to change its name, removing the word "development" from its title. This, according to Steinberg, helps make clear to the public the commission's dedication to preservation.
Sheehan joins Steinberg; Commissioner of NJ Department of Community Affairs Jane Kenny; Mayor of North Arlington Leonard Kaiser; NJ Audubon Society Vice President Richard Kane; Abigail Fair, who is the project director of the Association of NJ Environmental Commissions; and Mark Becker, Co-Founder and Co-Director, Bergen Save the Watershed Action Network (Bergen SWAN) on the Trust.
"It has been two years since its founding, the Meadowlands Conservation Trust can finally get to work," Sheehan said.
Sheehan said support for preservation by Acting Governor DiFrancesco and Congressman Steve Rothman helped create the change of heart by HMDC and other officials, and reversed a philosophy of development that had existed since the Meadowlands Commission's formation in 1969.
Steinberg agreed that the acting governor's support for the Meadowlands helped inspire the new level of compromise among formerly contending factions of the environmental community.
Getting money to buy land
One of the Trust's first tasks, Sheehan said, will be to promote the purchase of a new Meadowlands license plate, the proceeds from which are dedicated to wetlands acquisition. The trust will also seek support from Congressman Rothman - who has a seat on the House Appropriations Committee - to gain possible federal help. "When I talked to Congressman Rothman two years ago, he said that when he got onto the House Appropriations Committee, he would try to get us money for preservation," Sheehan said. "It seems that he has kept his word. From what we have been told, we can expect as much as $2.5 million."
Sheehan, however, said the Trust will not likely get enough from one source to protect the whole of the remaining wetlands. He said the area would not likely become the wilderness preserve he envisioned years ago, but a patch work of protected lands, funded under a variety of programs - each with its own conditions, but the entire meadowlands monitored by the trust.
One huge piece in this puzzle, however, involves the reconfiguring of the Meadowlands Sports Complex. In June, Acting Gov. DiFrancesco committed $300 million of state funds to build a railway spur into the Meadowlands and move Route 120 as part of his vision for replacing Continental Arena. The state legislature is expected to vote on the measure before the end of the year. This would pave the way for a proposed "Fun Village Mall" on the arena site, but would have remarkable positive environmental effects, Sheehan said.
"The plans call for moving everything that is planned for wetlands to upland sites, eliminating the need to fill any wetlands," he said.
Sheehan hopes to push the state into starting phase one of the projects, which would involve a study of the area, and pointing out areas for preservation.