Gone are the parking lots thick with cars. Gone are the signs posted for hotels and outlets. Gone, too, is the sound of Route 3 West, thick with rush hour traffic.
You have stepped out of the geographical reality that usually rules people's lives in Hudson County. Although you can still see the tops of buildings along the edges of this new and remarkable space - you can even see the towering top of the Empire State Building poking its head over the Palisades - the quiet deceives you as your footfall carries you into a world that once was considered wilderness.
Pokeweed crops up everywhere on either side of a crushed stone path, a plant that bears clusters of purple berries that birds find irresistible. Fox tails sway in the wind to one side as you walk. Sumac trees take root to the other as do gray birch trees and smooth cord grass. The path and a handful of islands are all that remains of the once inaccessible landscape, so packed with common reeds (called phragmites) that even animals struggle to shoulder their way through their stalks. Birds - screeching and squeaking among the newly created open spaces - struggle to find places to nest and feed.
In fact, until local environmental groups lead by the New Jersey Meadowlands Commission set about converting the place to a wild-life estuary, only two species of birds thrived among the reeds, redwing black birds and marsh wrens. Local geese claimed the few open spaces where water did flow. Raptors, hawks and osprey - which have made a comeback to the Meadowlands over the last decade, could not feed here even when they spied field mice scurrying through the reeds. Such birds would break wings diving into the wall of reeds.
Although the 132-acre site has numerous channels for water to ease in with the tide from the distant Hackensack River, the channels are manmade, dug out with derricks and channeled deliberately to create waterways where only mosquito ditches existed previously.
"We did everything here deliberately," said Ken Scariatelli of Northeastern Environmental, who roamed the walkway on Nov. 3 looking over an environmental masterpiece he helped create. "It was all designed to open this up."
After a delay of more than a year, the New Jersey Meadowlands Commission held a ribbon-cutting Oct. 23 opening Mill Creek Trail to the public for the first time. The trail is a free walkway that allows people to see nature close-up. The NJMC, which is funded by Meadowlands development and trash fees, paid for the project.
Wetlands for your enjoyment
Although NJMC attributed much of the physical work to Kyle Spendiff, their wetlands specialist, it was Northeast Environmental that helped create the computer models that would predict where to dig and how the water would flow once it was allowed access to the otherwise dry location.
Before the Dutch settled in this part of the world, it was all wetlands, fresh water curling up around the roots of massive cedar trees - the stumps of which dot the surface of the water everywhere you look. Common reed came with the Dutch, a foreign invader that found conditions right for expansion. The Dutch installed a system of dikes to help drain the meadows for farming, inadvertently increasing conditions in which the reeds could thrive.
"Phragmites grow in conditions that are not too wet and not too dry," Scariatelli said.
The conditions worsened over time as the reeds grew and increased the dryness of the land and changed the environment of the Meadowlands - making it impossible for these wetlands to perform their primary duty: breed fish.
Contrary to some belief, most fish do not breed in the open ocean. They slip into moist shadow areas like those found throughout New Jersey where they can enjoy vast amounts of food and relative safety. There is an ecological stew brewing here, a cycle of life that allows fish to breed and feed. It is also the breeding and feeding grounds for hundreds of species of birds.
Most people didn't understand the importance of such places until recently, seeing wetlands as mere swamps to be filled in for development or as waste disposal for factories. The Dutch used the meadows to farm-feed for cattle and other livestock, little realizing that the ditches they dug would eventually kill off the fish and keep migrating flocks of birds - an important foodstuff for local human populations - from landing here during their trips north or south.
Before the Dutch came, the wetlands in the Meadowlands estuary covered about 20,000 acres of brackish marsh, freshwater marsh and Atlantic white cedar swamp. Due to development, dredging and draining this number fell to about 7,700 acres before local environmental groups began to lobby for preservation. Conditions were so bad and the Meadowlands so unsightly due to dumping and other degradations that the state stepped in to manage the area in 1969.
Although local environmentalists such as the Hackensack Riverkeeper had sharp disagreements with the New Jersey Meadowlands Commission during the last two decades, this site in north Secaucus has proven one of the great success stories, part of a combined effort to preserve and restore the meadows to their previous functions.
Thus a walk along the intricate pathways that were constructed for use as a park can give visitors startling views of wildlife returning. Burrows in the banks near the water's edge shows that the fiddler crab has made its home here. In the sky, Peregrine falcons occasionally soar. Green-wing teal - a kind of duck - are expected within weeks for their stopover on their flight south for winter. Plants of all sorts flourish to either side full of white and scarlet flowers. Various birds take flight as a host of dignitaries make their way along the path in celebration of its opening. Even the Great Gray Heron takes off from the water, its shape and size straight out of the movie Jurassic Park, giving evidence to those who believe bird descended from the dinosaurs.
The changes have resulted in the return of more than 260 species of bird to use the area including green wing teal, herons, egrets, cormorants, raptors, hawks, osprey and others.
People with long memories that extend back to the pre-development days of the 1950s remember a different Meadowlands. Many of those like Mayor Dennis Elwell and former Fire Chief George Schoenrock remember hunting muskrats in these waters.
"In my father's time this was a green pasture full of flowers and watercress," Elwell said, waving an arm towards what is now mostly water.
In a speech held at the ribbon cutting, Elwell acknowledged his predecessor Mayor Anthony Just's role in helping to preserve the 200 acres once destined for development. The town, along with the NJMC, purchased the property from Hartz Mountain, a company that had sought to build up to 2,000 townhouses there.
Bob Ceberio, executive director of NJMC, called this a success of cooperation, one in which public officials came together with concerned citizens to save and restore a valuable estuary.
Bill Sheehan, the Hackensack Riverkeeper, also celebrated the lands' restoration, but noted that it would be only the beginning of a rescue effort of the remaining wetlands throughout the Meadowlands. Sheehan said with the help of federal legislators, most if not all the remaining wetlands acres will be saved.
The pathway has two entrances, but only one is open to the public. This gate is located at the edge of the mall's parking lot and will be open at dawn and closed at dusk except during winter. There are two pedestrian bridges along the path that cross over sections that allow rising tides to access inter areas.
The path is also divided into two sections, one that allows for a shorter walk. The full walk is just short of two miles long. Although the Mill Creek restoration area covers a larger area than the park currently gives access to, local officials predict there may be a time when this path will be connected to the Secaucus River Walk, a trail that will follow the shore of the Hackensack River from the nearby Mill Point Park near the high school to Laurel Hill Park located at the southern most tip of Secaucus. Several call boxes have been installed along the trail in case of emergency. The NJMC will also pay Secaucus to patrol and maintain the park. Several people have already been hired for this duty.
Resident goose problem requires management
A sad irony accompanied the opening of the new nature trail in the Mill Creek section of Secaucus. In order to provide a nature sanctuary that would allow migrating flocks of birds to stop over on their way south each winter or north in the spring, more than 100 local geese had to be killed. The presence of resident geese delayed the opening of the trail for a year and cost the New Jersey Meadowlands Commission in excess of $200,000 over the original cost of building the trail.
Kyle Spendiff, a wetlands specialist employed by the NJMC, said shooting the geese came as a last resort to a persistent problem.
Several local environmentalists involved with developing the trail said resident geese had made it impossible to create conditions that would allow migrating birds to settle. Geese are territorial, and they drove off those landing in the park area. Spendiff said the local geese also prevented park developers from installing plants that would provide food for the incoming flocks.
"These plants aren't meant to serve as food full-time," he said. "When migrating birds come, they feed and move on, giving the plants time to recover."
Each time the staff installed new plantings, the resident geese devoured the plants and pulled them up by the roots.
"We spent $100,000 in new plants alone," Spendiff said.
Each year, according to Geese Peace, an organization seeking alternative means of controlling geese populations, geese return to places of birth or previous nesting areas to mate. Often geese populations can be controlled by oiling eggs (which prevents them from hatching) or creating unfavorable conditions that will make Geese leave.
"We see killing geese as a last-ditch effort," said David Feld, president of Geese Peace, which has several programs ongoing in New Jersey.
Resident geese, Spendiff noted, are a manmade problem in New Jersey. Because the wetlands degraded to the point at which fewer and fewer flocks of geese stopped over in New Jersey to feed, the misguided environmentalists of the 1970s and 1980s imported geese to populate various waterlands areas. This created a kind of Catch-22 for a more enlightened environmental community seeking to recreate conditions that would restore wetlands to attract wild geese. Local geese would eat all the food and chase the wild geese away.
Permanent resident geese also have a way of wearing out their welcome even among geese-supporting humans.
Spendiff said NJMC tried many of the options promoted by Geese Peace before moving to kill the geese.
"We spent $100,000 in fencing to protect the plants," he said.
Then staff members punctured eggs found in the park site, an alternative to oiling them - stopping increased populations from making the problem worse.
"We also harassed them using pyrotechnics and a laser," he said.
By setting off small explosions and sending a laser light along the bank, Spendiff's staff hoped to make conditions so uncomfortable that the geese would fly away.
"The geese think the red laser is a predator," he said.
When this failed to have the desired effect, the staff rounded up geese during molting season in July - when geese can't fly.
"We took more than 70 birds off the property," he said. Yet more than a hundred eluded capture, and Spendiff eventually south a permit from the U.S. Division Fish and Wildlife to shoot them.
"This is not something anyone can do without justification," Spendiff said. "And believe me, it was not something I wanted to do. I love Canadian geese, and watching them migrating each year keeps me in tune. But if we don't keep the local population in check, even people who loved them may turn against them."
Spendiff said less severe control programs will most likely keep the population in check in the future.
"This is not something we're going to have to do again," he said. - Al Sullivan