When Anthony Impreveduto - now a state assemblyman for the 32nd District - was a boy, he lived very near the edge of the Mill Creek in Secaucus, an area that had largely been clogged meadows. "I used to stare into this place," he said, standing on a trail that will allow public access to the Mill Creek wetlands preserve later this year. "I used to think there was buried treasure here." Legends of pirates using the cedar forest of the Meadowlands date back to the American Revolution, and historians claim street gangs from New York City used to hide here in the early 1900s after robbing ships along the Hudson River. This week, Gov. Christine Whitman visited the site as part of a tour of several northern New Jersey locations and an attempt to highlight some of the beauty contained in the Garden State. Whitman joined Department of Consumer Affairs Director Jane Kenny, Hackensack Meadowlands Development Commission Chairman Alan Steinberg, and a host of other local officials in a hike along the trails being installed in an area north of Mill Creek Mall, as well as a canoe trip through the restored wetlands. The Mill Creek Wetlands Enhancement Project will rehabilitate 143 acres of degraded wetlands. The idea behind the project was to help make the Meadowlands wilderness a little more accessible to the public, while also restoring the wetlands to their original, functioning state. "This is one of the wonders of the Meadowlands," Whitman said after a 15-minute canoe trip. "There was a time when I was growing up that we wouldn't let people near this place. It was a wasteland, and didn't even function as a true wetlands. Now, after cleaning up the water, it has become a valuable piece of open space, a place where nature has been reclaimed." As envisioned, the trails would open up sections of restored wetlands and allow residents in the largely-urban area to witness wildlife in its natural habitat. This includes uplands elevation and construction of hiking trails, boardwalks and bridge construction, in a maze of paths that will follow the flow of water on a newly-constructed network of waterways, islands and impoundment areas. There will be two projected entrances, one from an area near Mill Creek Mall in Secaucus and another at Island Boulevard near the movie theaters, a short distance from the North Bergen border. By controlling the growth of reeds and re-establishing tidal flow, as well as creating open water areas and planting native vegetation, the HMDC hoped to create an environment that will result in low marsh habitats that are flushed daily by the tides. The site, which is still scheduled to open in May or June, would display for the public a vast array of wild life and natural plants. The work began in May, 1998, with nearly all aspects except planting are now complete. Planting of the upland areas is expected to be start in spring. Whitman said the Mill Creek site would serve as an example of open space preservation, the kind of which she had in mind when establishing her own open space initiative last year. "Here, in the most densely-populated county in the state in one of the most densely populated states in the country, we have a place like this where children can look at birds and learn about nature," Whitman said. Whitman said the project proved that economic growth could exist side by side with preservation, and would serve as a model for other projects around the state. Secaucus Mayor Dennis Elwell, who was among the local officials to greet Whitman, said the governor was impressed by several local issues and by the fact that the town and the HMDC had taken the initiative to preserve open space. Whitman later praised the agreement - done under former Mayor Anthony Just - between the town, the HMDC, Hartz Mountain Industries and NJ Transit that had made the preservation project possible.