Making the water his home Captain Bill Sheehan makes headway as Hackensack riverkeeper
Captain Bill Sheehan has had a lot of roles in his life, from rock-and-roll drummer as a boy to cab dispatcher in later years. Yet, the most consistent thing in his life has been the Hackensack River. Even though he has spent more than 30 years fishing and boating on the river, the Secaucus resident never imagined the various parts of life would come together in a way that would allow him to help save the river from pollution and receive backing from people like Bruce Springsteen and entities like the rock band Phish, the radio station Q104-FM, businesses, corporations and government agencies. "It's like a dream come true," Sheehan said this week, as he watched more and more pieces fall into place that will allow him to expand his current activities on the river. Although involved for several years as a volunteer in river rescue efforts through the Baykeepers, an environmental activist group under the auspices of the American Littoral Society, Sheehan first started to come into his own in 1995 when he set up his own watchdog environmental group focused specifically on the Hackensack River called HEART Corp. (Hackensack Estuary and River Tenders Corporation.) Sheehan was then making his living as a cab driver in Union City and dreaming of a time when he could earn his living protecting the river. He persisted in trying to inform the public about the dangers that threatened the river, including from pollution and over-development. At the time, Sheehan's limited resources forced him to concentrate on patrolling the lower Hackensack River, an area from Little Ferry to Jersey City, and taking people out onto the water to see what an environmental treasure the Meadowlands are. A riverkeeper at last Sheehan was named riverkeeper in 1997 by the national Riverkeepers Association. The position would eventually allow him draw a salary and focus his efforts full-time on protecting the river. Yet even then he did not know how significantly his fortunes had changed, or how well-respected he had become along the river. People shook his hand and told him he was doing a good job, but that didn't really indicate the extent of his influence. The American Riverkeeper program was still relatively new in America, but it had a solid tradition in England where every river had an official riverkeeper to watch over it and report its problems. In America, the riverkeepers had a much shorter tradition, inspired by the publication of Rachel Carson's "Silent Spring," and Robert Boyle's "The Hudson River: A Natural and Unnatural History." The most famous riverkeeper was John Cronin, whose exploits on the Hudson River attracted international headlines since 1983, as he pursued polluters and others who endangered the river. "Since I got my riverkeeper's license in 1997, the program has taken off," Sheehan said. "Not only did we receive a gift of a van by PSE&G, but we've raised $90,000 this year alone." From early April, when he puts his boat into the water, to late November, when the oncoming winter forces him to pull the boat out, Sheehan spends most of his day on the river. Since acquiring the new boat, he has taken hundreds of people onto the water, showing them creeks and shallows where birds nest and fish spawn. "Since I put the new boat into the water late last year, I've done 225 tours," Sheehan said. These included environmental groups, scouting groups, fishing groups and ordinary citizens. When he is not doing tours, he tours the watershed looking for problems, or helping students with various environment projects. Almost from his first day as riverkeeper, grants flowed in, allowing Sheehan to purchase a new pontoon boat totally dedicated to his tours of the river, but also the fuel with which to run it. Support came from environmental insurance employee foundations to a host of environmental foundations, from businesses that included supermarkets and software companies, as well as non-profit organizations from the Boys and Girls Scouts to Christian fellowships, and governmental organizations from the Bayonne Municipal Utilities Authority to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. But almost as importantly as any of those, individuals from up and down the Hackensack River have donated as well. Working with everyone In last couple of years, Sheehan began to work with PSE&G, whose power plants in Jersey City and Little Ferry make it a big player in the future of the Meadowlands recovery. In 1997, a pair of osprey settled onto one of the terminals at the Jersey City PSE&G plant to nest, but high winds blew the nest off, prompting a combined effort by Sheehan and PSE&G to install osprey nesting towers at various locations in Jersey City, Secaucus and elsewhere in the Meadowlands. Recently, the company has also helped Sheehan to install Bat Boxes with the hopes of attracting nesting bats in order to control the mosquito population. "Bats feed on mosquitoes," Sheehan said. "If we can encourage them to nest here, they will provide a natural control for mosquitoes." Last month, PSE&G donated a 1995 Dodge mini-van to the riverkeeper program so that Sheehan can continue to make his rounds. While PSE&G used to pose environmental problems for the Meadowlands, Sheehan said, the company has made great strides towards changing some of its procedures, especially in the redesign of its Little Ferry plant. For his work on the river, Sheehan has received awards from governmental agencies on every level, and his program has been modeled elsewhere in the country. He even received a national award for his part in helping restore the Secaucus High School environmental walkway, something he did in conjunction with Mike Gonnelli, the Secaucus Department of Public Works superintendent. A long-term project In 1999, a cooperative effort with Hudson County helped Sheehan realize another dream that would allow direct public access to the river. While he was able to purchase canoes through a grant, Sheehan credited Hudson County with allowing him to set up a canoe launch operation out of Laurel Hill Park in Secaucus. In 1998, Sheehan was allowed to move riverkeeping operations out of his Secaucus home when Fairleigh Dickinson University in Teaneck offered him office space. In 1999, the University offered Sheehan a 99-year lease on the Banta-Coe House, 1659 structure listed both on the state and national registers of historic places. Yet the most surprising thing to happen to Sheehan this year was when his riverkeeping operation drew the attention Bruce Springsteen, Q-104, and the rock band Phish. "When I heard that Bruce Springsteen was going to come back to the Meadowlands for a series of appearances, I wrote him a letter welcoming him home and asking if he could do anything to help the watershed," Sheehan said. "Springsteen gave us two front row tickets to help us raise money for the program." The radio station, Q-104 FM, not only held the raffle on the air, but gave Sheehan valuable air time, letting him explain what the riverkeeper program was trying to do. Recently, Sheehan was also given a percentage of proceeds from merchandise sold by vendors connected with the Phish rock band during their appearance as the PNC Arts Center in Woodbridge. "We were allowed to set up a table right next to theirs so we could tell the public what the program was all about," Sheehan said. The list of what Sheehan does and what he wants to do goes on and on, from continuing his sailing and walking eco-tours, urban fishing programs and his watershed watch, to research projects involving kids from Fairleigh Dickinson University. "I'm here to make people aware of the river," he said.