Although no one can restore the trees that once existed here - largely because the water has become much saltier - the Hackensack Meadowlands Development Commission, in conjunction with the Town of Secaucus, has set about preserving the 203-acre site of wetlands just north of the Mill Creek Mall.
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. The HMDC has since installed trails through the area designed to open up sections of restored wetlands and allow residents in the largely urban area to witness wildlife in its natural habitat. Efforts included uplands elevation, construction of hiking trails and 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, with two projected entrances. One entrance is from an area near Mill Creek Mall and another is 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 the creation of open water areas and the planting of native vegetation, the HMDC hoped to create an environment that will result in low marsh habitats that are flushed daily by the tides; lowland shrub habitats along the marsh/upland ecology; creation of dabbling duck, shorebird and wading bird breeding, wintering and migratory habitats; greater fishery access; and some degree of mosquito control.
A deal to preserve the land for all time
Once the $10 million enhancement plan was developed, it was sent to the U.S. Army Corps. of Engineers, the Environmental Protection Agency and other governing bodies for approval. The work began in May, 1998. Some changes were made to accommodate excessively high tides and to keep these tides from harming the walkway. Of the 203 acres of the Mill Creek project purchased in conjunction with the town of Secaucus in a $5 million deal in 1996 from Hartz Mountain Industries, 140 acres are being restored to a wetland state by the HMDC. Stricter federal wetland laws and shifting market conditions made a 2,000-unit housing development a less attractive investment to Hartz, although the development project had been in the planning stages since the 1980s. The land, which is now held in trust for preservation, will eventually be opened up to river water allowing the area to function as a wetland again. Construction of the New Jersey Turnpike and other factors had largely dried out the land over the years.
"This is my legacy to the town," said former Mayor Anthony Just. "I credit HMDC Chairperson Jane Kenny with having an open mind and the foresight to work with me to make this happen."
The money for the project came from the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, NJ Transit, the Department of Transportation and the Jet Aviation Executive Airfleet, as part of requirements for developing land in other parts of the state. Developers seeking certain kinds of construction permits are required under the federal Clean Water Act to pay for restoration of various wetland sites.
The final phase will take place shortly
On Sept. 27 this year, HMDC officials authorized the final phase of the project that would do additional landscape and upland improvements in the area.
Applied Landscape Technologies of Montville will conduct the required site improvements at a cost of $217,000 and will include improvements to the site's 1.5 mile hiking trail network, parking access within the Mill Creek Mall Parking lot and a handicapped-accessible entry plaza.
"This work will ensure long-term, ready access to the Mill Creek site," said Jane Kenny.
While the site is currently open to the public, people must be currently accompanied by HMDC officials, a situation that could change in the future once this aspect of the project is complete.
"Right now the site is only open by appointment and guided tour," said HMDC Commissioner Mike Gonnelli. "This contract will involve the planting of trees, the installation of information board, the construction of viewing areas and the upgrading of the entrances and the parking areas. The paths should be open to the general public the first thing next spring."
A major component of the upland improvement project will be the planting of native vegetation designed to provide an attractive setting for visitors and a crucial food and cover source for wildlife. Trees, shrubs and war-season grasses such as the seed-bearing switch grass will be planted along the hiking trails as well as on the upland areas that are off-limits to the public. This grass will keep the area from being overrun by the common reed that previously plagued it before the land was restored.
HMDC Environment Center Director Anne Galli said the improved public access to Mill Creek would greatly facilitate the center's public outreach and wetlands education programs.
"Making the Mill Creek wetland readily available to teachers and students will give our education outreach an entirely new dimension," Galli said.