By Michele S. Byers
With Super Bowl XLVIII coming on Sunday, the eyes of the nation will be on New Jersey's Meadowlands.
Predictably, New York will get the lion's share of attention. Viewers across the country will see shots of the Manhattan skyline, the Statue of Liberty, and other iconic New York area landmarks.
But there's a lot more to see in the Meadowlands than a three-hour football game. Why not take some time amid the Super Bowl hoopla to check out the amazing natural treasure right next to MetLife Stadium?
The Meadowlands are a great comeback story, a place where nature is gaining a foothold despite decades of human abuse.
When the first colonists arrived in the New World, the Meadowlands teemed with life. Tall, dark Atlantic white cedar forests dominated the wetlands, the estuary was filled with fish, and wildlife abounded.
Civilization, however, wasn't kind to this Jersey swamp.
As New Jersey's industries flourished, wetlands gave way to factories and warehouses. The Meadowlands became synonymous with toxic wastelands, landfills, and dumps. Pungent, nasty smells assaulted the nostrils of drivers on the New Jersey Turnpike - and Jersey jokes followed.
Citizens demanded a cleanup. In the last two decades, landfills and dumps were closed, cleaned up, and capped, and many wetlands were restored. The Meadowlands' trajectory, including its reputation, has reversed.
"The Meadowlands are the most significant piece of open space we have left in the New York metropolitan area," says Bill Sheehan, founder and executive director of the Hackensack Riverkeeper, a nonprofit group that has been working since 1997 to clean up and introduce people to the Meadowlands. "It's still pretty badly polluted, but it's recovering."
Today's challenges come from development proposals - shopping malls, hotels, and condos. But preservation efforts have been considerable.
More than 8,400 acres of preserved wetlands and waterways are now part of the 32-square-mile area officially designated as the Meadowlands, and they're home to more than 260 bird species.
In warm weather, the Riverkeeper holds paddling trips and pontoon boat "eco-tours" to show people the wild side of the Meadowlands. First-time visitors are often astonished to see so much wildlife practically in the shadow of the Empire State Building.
"The most common reaction I get is, 'Wow, I had no idea,' " said Hugh Carola, Sheehan's assistant. "People are out there on the water, looking at the skyline of Manhattan in the distance, and in the foreground are egrets, herons, bald eagles, ospreys, and peregrine falcons."
There are no boat tours during the winter, but Sheehan says visitors can still see plenty of nature from the ground: "While everybody's coming for a football party, there's a lot to see and do, even at this time of year."
A great start is Richard DeKorte Park in Lyndhurst. This 110-acre wetlands park includes the Meadowlands Environmental Center and several walking paths and boardwalks with spectacular views of the water. Try out the marsh trail at Mill Creek Point Park in Secaucus or Merhoff Pond in Losen Slote Creek Park in Little Ferry, also loaded with waterfowl and raptors this time of year. To find out more about these and other parks within the Meadowlands, see www.njmeadowlands.gov/environment/parks/parks.html.
Another fantastic place to visit is the 36-acre Richard J. Sullivan Natural Area within Liberty State Park in Jersey City. This tidal salt marsh is a natural area chock-full of birds. For information, see www.state.nj.us/dep/parksandforests/parks/liberty.html.