This was Corzine's first encounter with the Hackensack River, although for nearly the whole of his two years as a member of the U.S. Senate, he has sought to find federal funds to preserve the Meadowlands area.
So on Sunday, July 21, he decided to come see for himself what all the hoopla was about, and why the Meadowlands Estuary was so valuable as a natural asset that he and other federal officials needed to find funds needed to preserve it.
"I wanted to take a look at the area," he said before sailing the boat out. After he was securely situated in his canoe, he paddled out into deeper water, where the tidal flow of the Hackensack River rocked his boat a little. Down stream, the arch of the New Jersey Turnpike's Eastern Spur stretched across the horizon like a science fiction movie prop, stilted supports reflected like bars in the surface of the water. Beside it stood Laurel Hill Rock, a cracked and craggy face of stone staring out over fields of reeds.
Corzine paused near the middle of the river where he waited for the next canoe, in which Rep. Steve Rothman (D-9th Dist.) rowed, followed by canoes containing Brad Campbell, the director of the New Jersey Green Acres program, and Adam Zellner, the newly appointed executive director of the Governor's Smart Growth Program.
The officials grinned a little as they floated out towards the center of the river, each remarking how quiet this world was despite the fact that thousands of cars and trains scurried through the Meadowlands each day delivering hundreds of thousands of people into Manhattan less than two miles away.
Rothman, who had been here numerous times over the last six years, said he had come this time to show Corzine around the wilderness neighborhood.
"Jon came to get a first-hand view of the Meadowlands," Rothman said, noting that pressure to develop over the last three or four decades had encroached on valuable wetlands, and that these officials had come as part of an effort to keep any more wetlands from vanishing.
Although this was his first trip, Corzine has been an active supporter of preservation. The senator noted that he had a 100 percent voting record in the senate on environmental issues.
Rothman said he and other officials are seeking to find a way to preserve the remaining 8,400 acres of wetlands in the Meadowlands. The entire Meadowland estuary is about 32,000 acres in size and incorporates 14 municipalities in Hudson and Bergen counties, including most of Secaucus, Kearny and Harrison and parts of Jersey City.
"The Meadowlands consists of some of New Jersey's most precious open space, and I am committed to preserving it as an important environmental area for our children and generations to come," Rothman said.
Turning the Meadowlands into a park
"What we want to do is turn the Meadowlands into a park," Rothman said. "That's why I was delighted when Jon asked me to come along on this trip."
Rothman, a lifelong resident of Bergen County, has made the preservation of the 8,400 undeveloped acres of the Hackensack Meadowlands - separate from the Arena/Giants Stadium property - a top priority. He has been the leader of the effort to spare the presently undeveloped space from development with the intention of turning it into an environmental park with opportunities for eco-canoe trips, nature walks, bird watching, other appropriate recreational activities, and an environmental educational center for children.
And Rothman has been one of the more vocal supporters of Meadowlands preservation since his election to Congress in 1998, even when the political winds seemed to favor development over preservation. This was far from his first trip though the amazing maze that makes up the creeks and tidal flows of the Meadowlands delta.
During battles over the future of the Meadowlands in the late 1990s, Rothman stood side by side with Hackensack Riverkeeper Bill Sheehan and others, calling for a stop to development here. The combined efforts succeeded when the New Jersey Meadowlands Commission dumped its proposed master plan (called the Special Area Management Plan) in anticipation of a new plan based on preservation rather than development
"I want to show Jon our vision for the Meadowlands," Rothman said. "We want to show him what it looks like and why we need money to acquire land."
Over the last two years, Rothman has called on Corzine to help shepherd funding bills through the Senate, and last year, these efforts resulted in $1.2 million in federal funds that were matched by state and local agencies. Rothman and Corzine are hoping to get $5 million this year, money that would purchase and preserve areas that are currently not under public ownership.
Corzine said public opinion plays a huge role in pushing Congress to do the right thing toward the environment.
"There is a lot of competition for money," he said. "If we can raise awareness in the public for the environment, we establish credibility in Congress for funding the projects"
Corzine said he has been working closely with Rothman in pushing for preservation.
"The Mills Development on the Empire tract is obviously not going to happen," he said, referring to a proposal for a mall on a piece of land in Carlstadt.
Looking for money
Rothman said this would not be a federal park, but one operated by the state.
"What we are seeking is seed money that will be matched by money from other sources," Rothman said.
Acting Director Bob Ceberio of the New Jersey Meadowlands Commission said that of the 8,400 remaining wetlands acres in the Meadowlands, 4,000 are already publicly owned by state, counties or municipalities. These are available for preservation. NJMC has already preserved 2,627 acres. Of the 3,000 acres privately owned, Ceberio said the state has laid claim to about 500, leaving about 2,500 acres to be acquired.
Brad Campbell, director for the state Green Acres program, said he came along for the ride in order to work with the federal officials on the project.
"We're looking to work in cooperation with Senator Corzine and Congressman Rothman," Campbell said. "We want to leverage federal funds as much as possible."
Campbell said the challenge is not merely to purchase the land and preserve, it, but to also restore degraded wetlands and enforce the cleanup of wetlands polluted in the past.
One additional source of funding may come from property owners assessed with the charges for cleanup of the pollution, Campbell said.
A dream comes true
Sheehan called this canoe trip a dream come true, a display of political power in favor of the environment.
"We have some of the most influential people working towards the common cause of preserving the environment," he said.
These same forces, he predicted, will have an important effect on developing the new master plan for the Meadowlands. Campbell said Green Acres is currently working with NJMC on a new master plan for the Meadowlands, along with federal and local officials as well as environmentalists like Sheehan. Preliminary numbers already show a change of direction. Where as the old master plan called for possibly filling as many as 840 wetlands acres with soil, the new master plan sees 84 acres filled, and only to help seal landfills that are currently leaking poisons into the river.
Rothman called Sheehan his "Environmental guru," someone who has given him an education on the Meadowlands over the last six years.
"I've worked with Billy and other environmentalists to help develop a vision of the park we want to see here," Rothman said.
When the new plan gets put into place, Sheehan said people would not see a great change in the Meadowlands, because the plan will have a hands-off policy.
"We won't be trying to create park-like appearances, but instead looking to let nature be what it is," he said. "This is sending a message to the nation to say that you can have preservation of this kind even this close to a metropolitan area."
The future Meadowlands will likely be held in trust by a conservancy to make certain the land remains unspoiled by development.
Wildlife study funded
In response to appeals from Rep. Steve Rothman (D-9th Dist.), the U.S. House of Representatives in early July approved $180,000 for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to serve as an environmental counselor in an ongoing study that is examining the various approaches to preserving the Hackensack Meadowlands' open space outside of the Arena/Giants Stadium property.
The funds, which are part of the Interior Appropriations bill for Fiscal Year 2003, will allow the Fish and Wildlife Service to assist the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers with its comprehensive review of the Meadowlands over the next year.
"The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will provide the U.S. Army Corps with an in-depth examination of the impact that each potential plan to preserve the Meadowlands will have on the environment," said Rothman, a member of the House Appropriations Committee, which allocates all funds in the federal budget. "Since our overall goal is to restore and preserve the entire 8,400 undeveloped acres in the Meadowlands, just off the Arena and Giants Stadium property, and turn it into an environmental park, it is only right that we have environmental experts work hand in hand with those responsible for the engineering logistics."
The Hackensack Meadowlands supports a diverse concentration of migratory birds and is home to 65 species of nesting birds, and more than 50 species of fish and shellfish. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service lists the Meadowlands as a wetland of national importance, and the National Marine Fisheries Services describes it as an essential fish habitat.
"I am hopeful that once the Army Corps and Fish and Wildlife complete their study, we will be able to proceed with a plan that will make the Hackensack Meadowlands Environmental Park a reality," Rothman said. - Al Sullivan