The Hackensack River Watershed and the New Jersey Meadowlands were sculpted by the retreating Wisconsin Glacier more than 12,000 years ago. Although tractor-trailers now rumble where Mastodons once trod, the region remains unique because of what the glacier left behind: the Hackensack River. The water of the river is the lifeblood of the land and all the creatures — humans included — that live within its watershed.
In the almost 400 years since European colonization, vast areas of riparian forests were clear-cut for farms that later became industrial developments and towns. The river, which had served both Native and new Americans as a source of Nature’s bounty for generations, was transformed into an open sewer by the mid 20th Century.
The Meadowlands suffered terribly. Between polluters, trash barons and land speculators, two-thirds of its wetlands — some 14,000 acres — were filled in. Fisheries were lost, recreation stopped and watershed citizens were driven away from their own river by the stench, the garbage and the barbed wire fences that surrounded the factories that polluted the waters and fouled the land.
With the advent of the Clean Water Act in 1972, wiser environmental regulations began to slowly correct past errors. After decades of struggle by activists and political leaders in the Meadowlands, a new Master Plan for conservation and proper development was agreed upon in 2004 by government policymakers, environmental advocates and business people. Today it is being implemented by the New Jersey Meadowlands Commission, the planning and zoning authority for the region, and is complemented by better land use policy elsewhere in the watershed, putting an emphasis on habitat preservation. With the turning of every tide, the seeds of saltmarsh plants are spread in this amazing “accidental saltmarsh.” Most important, the wetlands are no longer threatened.
As anyone can now discover, the Meadowlands is home to 64 species of breeding birds including Threatened and Endangered species like Northern Harrier, Yellow-crowned Night-Heron and Osprey. An additional 200 bird species, including Bald Eagles, utilize the Meadowlands as a migratory stopover or as overwintering habitat. Most recently, the Meadowlands District met the rigorous scientific criteria to be recognized as an Important Bird Area by New Jersey Audubon Society’s Important Bird and Birding Areas program. It provides essential habitat for one or more species of birds that make a significant contribution to the long-term viability of native avian populations in New Jersey. The Hackensack River supports nearly 100 species of fish and shellfish including both marine and estuarine species. Trophy-sized striped bass are regularly caught in the river and harbor seals are observed there nearly every winter feeding on the now-abundant herring and other forage fish.
Humans have also returned to the Meadowlands at last. We are birders, boaters, sportsmen and just plain folks who come for an escape from the pace of urban life that surrounds its 8,500 acres of water, marshes and open space. The newest chapters in the saga of the Meadowlands are yet to be written. This Guide is your invitation to help write them.