Three decades ago the Hackensack Meadowlands were not what even the most determined optimist could call a healthy ecosystem. Fifty thousand tons of garbage – more than one-third of New Jersey’s total solid waste stream – were deposited weekly in the huge, smoking landfills. Development within the estuary was unplanned and virtually uncontrolled and toxic landfill leachate and industrial effluents were taking a terrible toll on the surrounding wetlands and the Hackensack River. Wildlife, including waterfowl, was fast becoming a thing of the past in this critically endangered ecosystem.
In 1969 the New Jersey Legislature saw the need to halt the destruction of this unique wetland complex and so created the Hackensack Meadowlands Development Commission (HMDC). The Commission’s three founding mandates were clear and right to the point: the control and eventual termination of solid waste disposal; the protection and enhancement of surviving natural habitats; and the planning for orderly development within the newly-created 32 square-mile Meadowlands District.
Over the ensuing decades, garbage dumping has virtually ceased throughout the District and new technologies resulted in the control of toxic leachate filtering from the old landfills into the surrounding ecosystem. As the HMDC shifted its focus from intervention in what was literally an economic and environmental Armageddon to the preservation and enhancement of damaged wetland habitats, a new name for the agency was clearly called for. In 2001 today’s New Jersey Meadowlands Commission (NJMC) was brought into being.
One of the Meadowlands Commission’s current and major initiatives has been the restoration of degraded wetlands throughout the District. The Commission currently has 11 enhancement sites of varying acreage in the stages between planning and completion, the most recent being the beautiful 140-acre Mill Creek Wetland Enhancement Site in Secaucus.
In 1995, Ducks Unlimited joined in partnership with the NJMC to further the work of preserving and enhancing wetland habitats critical to waterfowl and other water-dependent bird species. Both entities recognized the critical importance of preserving and restoring wetland habitats within the Meadowlands, a vitally important waterfowl migration stop on the Atlantic Flyway.
Beginning in 1995, DU supplied design concepts, engineering and site supervision at the Commission’s Harrier Meadow and Skeetkill sites. Two principal approaches to restoration were the effective control of the invasive common reed (phragmites) monoculture that lowered site plant diversity, and the reopening of the sites to the tidal action that is essential in healthy coastal waterfowl habitats.
Later on, DU design assistance and engineering expertise contributed to the ultimate success of the Mill Creek site, which is today fully operational biologically, and open to guided public tours by arrangement with the Meadowlands Environment Center. Preliminary design, engineering studies, environmental assessments, permit review and environmental samplings were also conducted by DU at the Commission’s Oritani Marsh and Secaucus High School wetland enhancement sites.
Ducks Unlimited has carried out vigorous fundraising efforts for habitat improvement in the Cove area of DeKorte Park’s Kingsland Impoundment and for enhanced public access and use of the Mill Creek Site in the form of interpretive and educational signage and other recreational and science-oriented initiatives geared toward introducing area students to wetlands ecology and function.
Today, thanks to this vital NJMC/DU partnership, the future appears bright for both resident and transient waterfowl species that annually utilize the Meadowlands for feeding, nesting and resting. This trend can perhaps be best demonstrated by simply outlining recent observations both at specific wetlands enhancement sites and throughout the Meadowlands at large. For example, while wintering populations of the canvasback have declined to record lows on the Hudson River, long a favorite wintering ground, they have remained stable in the Meadowlands, with between 300 and 600 birds occupying suitable habitats in the Kingsland Impoundment and the Saw Mill Creek Wildlife Management Area.
The Mill Creek site in Secaucus hosts several thousand green-winged teal each fall and winter, and both this species and the blue-winged teal are known to nest there. While other wetlands-dependent species, such as the least bittern and the moorhen, have declined in recent years, all of the common Meadowlands resident waterfowl – the mallard and black duck, the gadwall, the ruddy duck and the mute swan – have maintained stable populations or are increasing. Wintering species observed with increasing regularity over the past three years include all three merganser species, the pintail, the shoveler, the greater scaup, the bufflehead, the American wigeon (“baldpate”), the wood duck, and the ring-necked duck. Occasional rarities have included the long-tailed duck (“Oldsquaw”), the redhead and the common goldeneye.
In summary, the success of this unique Meadowlands partnership can perhaps be best observed in the sight of a thousand teal wheeling in perfect unison above Mill Creek or that of a great raft of “cans” resting on the calm waters of the Sawmill Creek Wildlife Management Area. These are the direct beneficiaries of the NJMC/DU plan for the resurrection of the natural Meadowlands.