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N.J. Meadowlands: From Dumping Ground to Wildlife Preserve

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N.J. Meadowlands: From Dumping Ground to Wildlife Preserve

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N.J. Meadowlands: From Dumping Ground to Wildlife Preserve

N.J. Meadowlands: From Dumping Ground to Wildlife Preserve

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More than 8,000 acres of wetlands across the Hudson River from New York City has been earmarked for a wildlife preserve. The New Jersey Meadowlands was long known as a dumping ground: one of the country's largest landfills — and an occasional burial spot for mobsters.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

The New Jersey Meadowlands, that vast swamp across the Hudson River from New York City, was long known as a dumping ground, one of the country's largest landfills and an occasional burial spot for mobsters. About 10 years ago, some environmentalists thought they could do something with what some call the armpit of the Northeast, and just this year, they got a large swath of land preserved from development to create an urban wildlife preserve just six miles from Midtown Manhattan. Nancy Solomon reports.

(Soundbite of motorboat)

NANCY SOLOMON reporting:

As Captain Bill Sheehan steers his small motorboat along the main stem of the Hackensack River, a snowy egret is spooked by the noise and takes off from the marshy riverbank. The water is a pristine blue. The marsh grass flutters in the breeze. If it weren't for the hum of the New Jersey Turnpike, you'd never know we're just off Exit 16. Sheehan grew up just across from this marsh in Secaucus.

Captain BILL SHEEHAN: People's attitudes toward wetlands were that they were wastelands. You couldn't build on them, you couldn't walk on it, you couldn't sit on it. It was wasteland. They said, `Well, we've got this horrible solid waste problem. We might as well throw it out there.'

SOLOMON: Then attitudes shifted. Land in the New York region became scarce, and building on the wetlands began to gain favor. One by one, the dumps closed to be replaced by malls, warehouses and a huge sports complex. Then about 10 years ago, Sheehan started Hackensack Riverkeeper to fight off new development. After saving the wetlands in bits and pieces, he and other environmentalists won a long-fought battle this year to stop a huge mall from going up right in the middle of the marsh. That created a contiguous 8,400-acre preserve that is the last large, untamed open space in the New York metropolitan area.

Capt. SHEEHAN: This is not Yellowstone. This is not Yosemite. It will never be that, but what it will be is a wild place in the heart of the most heavily populated, fastest-running economic engine on the East Coast of the United States, possibly in the world, and it's going to be preserved forever.

SOLOMON: Sheehan has even managed to win over some of his harshest critics, the local Chamber of Commerce and the regional agency that controls development, the New Jersey Meadowlands Commission.

Mr. BOB CEBERIO (New Jersey Meadowlands Commission): We're focusing right now on transforming something that was for the longest time an ugliness zone into something that balances out economic development interests but cleaning up the scars of the past.

SOLOMON: Bob Ceberio, the executive director of the Meadowlands Commission, also grew up here. But while Bill Sheehan was haranguing officials to clean up the Hackensack River, Ceberio was managing the landfills and inviting development on the marshes. But then former Governor James McGreevey made environmental protection in New Jersey a priority and Ceberio reversed the course.

Mr. CEBERIO: The smells, the fires, the garbage trucks. That was the picture of me growing up in the Meadowlands, and that's why I feel honored to be part of this transformation that we're talking about ecotourism.

SOLOMON: They're talking about what?

(Soundbite of tape rewinding)

Mr. CEBERIO: ...that we're talking about ecotourism.

SOLOMON: And Ceberio isn't just talking. In the last couple of years, they've added canoe and kayak rentals, pontoon boat tours, hiking trails and bird-watching stations. Now the image is about to get a makeover, too. The Meadowlands Commission spent $225,000 to create a visitors bureau, hire a public relations firm and create Web sites and touch-screen kiosks, all to lure tourists. After all, 39 million people visit New York City each year, most of them unaware they can see a wildlife preserve from Manhattan.

Have you ever heard of the Meadowlands?

Ms. MARY KENNEDY (Tourist): Not really.

SOLOMON: Mary Kennedy of Nova Scotia is standing on the 86th floor observation deck of the Empire State Building.

It's that open space over there.

Ms. KENNEDY: Yes.

Unidentified Woman: Yes. Oh, yes, it's right over there.

SOLOMON: So you've never heard of it. You've never considered going over to visit, I take it.

Ms. KENNEDY: No. I wouldn't know how to get to New Jersey from here.

SOLOMON: Some of the tourists say they'd be interested in visiting the Meadowlands, but not Dan Jones of Upstate New York.

Mr. DAN JONES (Tourist): We're from a place where there's lots of open space. We're here to see the opposite of open space, so that really doesn't thrill us from here.

SOLOMON: But the marketing people in the Meadowlands are not worried. Even without tourists, there are 15 million people who live within an hour's drive. The Meadowlands Commission has opened an environmental center that is already a big hit with local schoolkids.

Unidentified Student #1: Ooh, is that a barnacle? That's a barnacle! Get it.

SOLOMON: A sixth-grade class is spending the morning dip net fishing in the marsh for grass shrimp and red worms.

Unidentified Student #2: Grab it by the legs.

Unidentified Student #3: You grab it by the legs.

SOLOMON: The kids are from Roosevelt School in Garfield, a low-income suburb with very few resources for teaching the kids about biology and the outdoors. Jason Muller shows them how to find creatures at the bottom of the food chain.

Mr. JASON MULLER (Teacher): What you're gonna do, you're going to dip it in. Then you hit bottom.

Students: Eeew.

Mr. MULLER: There. We got some muck.

SOLOMON: Monique Simmons(ph) and Jasmine Fernandez(ph) sift through a dip net of muck.

MONIQUE SIMMONS: And we're getting dirty and everything.

JASMINE FERNANDEZ: We're getting down and dirty.

SIMMONS: We're getting down and dirty, and we like it.

FERNANDEZ: But it's fun.

SIMMONS: It's fun.

FERNANDEZ: Yeah.

SIMMONS: You don't really think about getting dirty.

FERNANDEZ: I know.

SIMMONS: You just think about catching a fish.

FERNANDEZ: Yeah.

SOLOMON: They're also not bothered by the turnpike nearby nor the industrial buildings or the black steel train trestle bridge across the lagoon. But even wilderness lovers can find charm in this contrasting landscape. Kyle Spendiff is a wetlands specialist for the Meadowlands Commission.

Mr. KYLE SPENDIFF (Wetlands Specialist): It's got its own flavor. Pristine wilderness is pristine wilderness and believe me, I love it. But it's very easy to get around by car, and you basically just park your car, hop out and, you know, catch a flock of glossy ibis, hop back in the car, drive another 15 minutes and see a flock of a 1,000--or raft of 1,000 ruddy ducks.

SOLOMON: Spendiff just may have stumbled onto something the marketing gurus can work with, a drive-in wilderness at Exit 16. For NPR News, I'm Nancy Solomon.

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