Hackensack Meadowlands, New Jersey, Biodiversity:
Erik Kiviat and Kristi MacDonald
P.O. Box 5000, Annandale, New York 12504-5000 USA
Prepared for the
Hackensack Meadowlands Partnership
8 August 2002
© Hudsonia Ltd., Annandale, New York, 2002
Corrections and Updates to:
Hackensack Meadowlands, New Jersey, Biodiversity: A Review and Synthesis
By Erik Kiviat and Kristi MacDonald, Hudsonia Ltd.
We will occasionally add information to this section of the report instead of frequently changing the report itself. This section last changed 23 June 2003 by EK.
P. 40: The laboratory work of J. Weis comparing reed and cordgrass detritus did not use mummichogs, only fiddler crabs and grass shrimp.
P. 93: The correct year of publication for Labriola is 2000. Labriola should precede Langan.
P. 97: The Yuhas 2001 thesis was prepared at New Jersey Institute of Technology, not Rutgers University.
Table 4: American coot should be indicated (*) as water or wetland-associated; barn-owl should not be.
P. 32: In July 2002, an apparent family group of northern harrier (Endangered) was observed on multiple days at the Carlstadt-Moonachie marshes (Empire tract), indicating breeding at that location. Thus the Empire tract and the Berry’s Creek marshes are the two known breeding localities for this species in the Meadowlands.
P. 65: To the best of our knowledge, this clam-shrimp species is known from only about 10 localities in its global range. If this species were reviewed by the State Natural Heritage Program it would be ranked G1 S1. The Meadowlands population therefore may have considerable significance for conservation.
Table 1: Additional species in the Meadowlands flora are Cuscuta pentagona, Menispermum canadense, Penstemon digitalis, and Tradescantia virginiana.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
INTRODUCTION: AN URBAN ESTUARY 5
The Nature of Estuaries 6
Purpose and Methods of this Review 7
ENVIRONMENTAL SETTING AND CONDITIONS 9
Environmental History 13
Water Quality and Air Quality 16
VEGETATION AND HABITAT TYPES IN THE MEADOWLANDS 19
WETLAND AND WATERWAY HABITATS 20
Subtidal Habitats 20
Estuarine Deep Water 20
Estuarine Shallow Water 20
Intertidal Habitats 20
Salt Marshes 20
Brackish Marshes 22
Freshwater Tidal Marshes 22
Non-tidal Habitats 23
Brackish Impoundments 23
Freshwater Marshes and Impoundments 24
Forested Wetlands 24
Ponds on Landfills 25
UPLAND HABITATS 25
Upland Meadow and Shrubland Communities 25
Rights-of-way and Margins of Developed Areas 26
Non-vegetated Areas 26
Buildings and Other Artificial Structures 26
SITE DESCRIPTIONS 27
Kearny Marsh 27
Sawmill Creek 28
Harrier Meadow 29
Kingsland Marsh 29
Berry’s Creek Marsh 29
Walden Swamp 31
Eight Day Swamp 31
Carlstadt-Moonachie Site (in part, “Empire Tract”) 31
Losen Slote 32
Power Plant Peninsula 32
Teterboro Airport Forest 32
Overpeck Creek and Hackensack River 32
Skeetkill Marsh and Bellman’s Creek Marsh 33
Cromakill Creek Marsh 33
Mill Creek 33
Anderson Creek Marsh 34
Laurel Hill (Snake Hill) and Little Snake Hill 34
Penhorn Creek Marsh 35
Riverbend Marsh 35
PLANTS AND FUNGI 36
Vascular Plants 36
Common Reed and Other Invasive Plants 36
Fungi and Lichens 45
ANIMALS OF THE MEADOWLANDS 45
Wading Birds 50
Gulls and Terns 53
Other Water Birds 54
Birds of Prey 54
Galliform Birds 57
Other Birds 57
Reptiles and Amphibians 58
Aquatic Macroinvertebrates 62
Terrestrial Invertebrates 64
ENDANGERED, THREATENED, AND RARE SPECIES 67
HUMAN USE OF THE MEADOWLANDS 67
Current Uses 67
Turtle Harvest 68
Fur Trapping 68
Ladybug Harvest 68
Reed Harvest 68
Illegal Waste Disposal 68
Resources from Landfills 69
Ecotourism, Birdwatching, and Nature Study 69
Miscellaneous Active Recreation 69
Mosquito Control 69
Industrial and Transportation Uses 70
Stormwater and Wastewater 70
The Arts 70
Historic and Potential Uses 70
Agriculture and Logging 71
Edible Plants and Fungi 71
Beneficial Use of Invasive Plant Biomass 71
BIOLOGICAL EFFECTS OF CHEMICAL POLLUTANTS 71
THE MEADOWLANDS AND WILDLIFE 74
IMPLICATIONS FOR CONSERVATION 75
HABITAT MANAGEMENT AND RESTORATION 75 Targets for Restoration 75
Impoundment of Tidal Marshes 77
Managing Water Levels 77
Drawdown of Impoundments 77
Removal of Tide Barriers 78
Reed Replacement 78
Altering Soil and Vegetation in Existing Reed Stands 80
Removal of Fill 80
Artificial or Emplaced Natural Structures for Wildlife 81
Pond and Marsh Construction 81
Livestock Grazing 82
Beneficial Use of Invasive Plant Biomass 82
Management of Invasive Plants 83
RESEARCH NEEDS 84
Invasive Plants 84
Rare Plants 84
Fish Populations 85
Other Groups of Organisms 86
Toxic Contaminants and Biota 86
Functions and Processes 86
Small Areas of Habitat 87
The Landscape 87
REFERENCES CITED 88
APPENDIX A: Table 1. Vascular plants of the Hackensack Meadowlands.
APPENDIX B: Table 2. Fish species of the Hudson-Raritan Estuary.
APPENDIX C: Table 3. Birds of the Hackensack Meadowlands.
APPENDIX D: Table 4. Officially listed endangered, threatened, and rare species of the Hackensack Meadowlands.
Figure 1. Map of the Hackensack Meadowlands showing localities discussed in the text. (to be added)
Figure . Maps of individual sites (to be added)
INTRODUCTION: AN URBAN ESTUARY
The Hackensack Meadowlands1 are about 16 kilometers (about 10 miles) long north to south, and cover an area of about 83 square kilometers or 8,300 hectares (about 32 square miles or 21,000 acres) that was once almost all wetlands (see Quinn 1997, Day et al. 1999). The official Hackensack Meadowlands District comprises 7,889 hectares (19,485 acres). Wetlands and waters now cover about 3,200 hectares (about 8,000 acres) in the Meadowlands (Meadowlands Environmental Research Institute [MERI], personal communication to EK, 2002). The land is mostly at sea level, with isolated knolls that include the ca. 53 meter (ca. 175 foot) high Laurel Hill and a few 30 meter (100 foot) high landfills (Day et al. 1999). Extensive common reed marshes, more than anything else, characterize the Meadowlands environment which lies isolated and surrounded by rocky ridges and urban centers. The marshes are crisscrossed by high-speed highways, dotted with hills of covered garbage, and broken by industrial archipelagoes. In 2001, based on the threat of urban development, the Hackensack River was ranked number 12 of the 13 “Most Endangered Rivers” of the U.S. (American Rivers 2001, Anonymous 2001). Yet the Meadowlands have been called a de facto “urban wildlife refuge” (R. Kane, statement at U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service workshop, 31 October 2001), and are 1 of 5 clusters of estuarine open space lands in the New York City area (A. Appleton, statement at USFWS workshop, 31 October 2001). In the Meadowlands, development, rare birds, invasive plants, pollution in the sediments, and ecological restoration projects vie for space in seeming ecological contradiction.
The Meadowlands might not stand out among estuaries but for its location within one of the most heavily industrialized and densely populated regions of the world, northeastern New Jersey. With Manhattan looming less than three miles away, the Meadowlands is a diorama of residential development and factories, automobile and air traffic, and landfills, contrasted with expanses of tall reeds, tidal creeks, mudflats, rivers, and abundant wildlife. This remarkable landscape has persisted despite centuries of draining and ditching, dumping and chemical pollution. The considerable values of the Meadowlands for fauna and flora, and for the 20 million human residents of the New York metropolitan area, require a comprehensive assessment of existing information and research needs. This review and synthesis about the Meadowlands ecosystem will provide some of the scientific information needed to make sound planning, management, and restoration decisions.
In 1968, the New Jersey State Legislature enacted a law creating the Hackensack Meadowlands Development Commission (Kraus and Bragin 1988). In 2001, this agency was officially renamed New Jersey Meadowlands Commission (NJMC); we use this name regardless of the time period, except for literature references which we present verbatim. The NJMC was given broad regulatory power over land use and economic development in 14 municipalities which lie within the boundaries of the Hackensack Meadowlands District in Bergen and Hudson counties (Kraus and Bragin 1988) (Figure 1). The three principal mandates of the NJMC are: 1. To support orderly development; 2. To administer solid waste disposal; and 3. To protect the ecosystem.
The Nature of Estuaries
Most estuaries are semi-enclosed coastal water bodies which have free connections with the open sea and within which sea water is measurably diluted with freshwater derived from land drainage (Pritchard 1967). Estuaries are zones of biogeochemical, faunal, and floral mixing and they are considered to be one of the most highly productive ecosystems on the planet (Day et al. 1989). Due to this environmental diversity, estuaries support a high diversity of living components. Schelske and Odum (1962) give several reasons for this high productivity. First, estuaries contain three types of photosynthesizing organisms: marsh grass, benthic algae, and phytoplankton. Thus, light energy from the sun can be captured in all seasons. Second, the ebb and flow of tides, and the influx of water from rivers and other areas of the estuary continuously bring large amounts of nutrients in and out of the system. Finally, there is a high rate of regeneration and storage of nutrients in the estuarine system through the activities of microorganisms and filter-feeding invertebrates.
Estuaries have a number of other important characteristics. The benthic fauna is the myriad of organisms that resides within and upon the sediments, plants, and other submerged surfaces. This includes crustaceans, insects, mollusks, oligochaetes, polychaetes, protozoa, and others. Within estuaries, it is generally accepted that species richness decreases as one moves from high-salinity ocean waters to low-salinity waters upstream (references cited in Day et al. 1989). The abundance of benthic organisms per unit area of the estuarine bottom, however, exceeds the numbers in marine environments by 1 or 2 orders of magnitude (Day et al. 1989). Patterns of estuarine community structure in relation to salinity remain an active topic of research and scientific debate (Day et al. 1989).
Drifting within the water column is the plankton community, which is composed of phytoplankton, bacterioplankton, and zooplankton. Zooplankters are small organisms that are passively transported by water currents or that swim too weakly to avoid the influence of the currents (Day et al. 1989). Copepods, immature invertebrates and chordates, eggs, larvae, and juveniles of adult nekton (see below), and sexual stages of hydrozoan and scyphozoan coelenterates are examples of zooplankton found in estuaries (Day et al. 1989).
Nekton comprises all of the free-swimming pelagic organisms of the estuary, including mostly fishes but also squids, scallops, crabs, lobsters, turtles, and marine mammals (Day et al. 1989). The biomass of these organisms in estuaries is among the greatest biomass at higher trophic levels found in natural ecosystems anywhere in the world (Day et al. 1989). Because many species of marine fishes require estuaries for spawning or as nursery grounds, estuaries are an integral habitat for the maintenance of marine fish stocks (Day et al. 1989). Brackish tidal marshes are generally considered important components of the environment of East Coast fisheries, not only due to the functions of the marshes as spawning, nursery, and foraging habitats, but also because the organic matter and animals exported from marshes to estuary form the base of many fishery food chains.
Estuaries support a high diversity of birds, mammals and reptiles (Day et al. 1989). There are also amphibian species that occur there but they are not abundant due to problems with osmoregulation in saline environments and their requirement for freshwater for spawning. Species composition and abundance changes seasonally as well as diurnally with the tides. Muskrat occurs year-round at high densities in estuarine marshes, using large amounts of plant material for direct consumption and for building their conical houses. Sandpipers and other shorebirds stop over in estuaries during spring and fall to obtain nutrients and energy to fuel their migration to and from their Arctic breeding grounds. They exploit the abundance of benthic fauna that becomes available during low tides on exposed mudflats and in marsh shallows. Large numbers of wading birds breed in the estuary or nearby, and feed on benthic fauna and fish. Rails and bitterns nest in the marsh vegetation during spring and summer. Songbirds such as red-winged blackbirds and marsh wrens occur in high numbers in estuaries where they nest in tall vegetation such as common reed and exploit the high productivity of the tidal marshes. A single breeding pair of marsh wrens consumed 20% of the standing crop of insects and spiders in their territory per day, equal to 3500 kcal for the entire breeding season (Kale 1965). An unintended consequence of large-scale mosquito ditching in most eastern U.S. estuaries was that dredged material along ditches provided a drier habitat where shrubs such as marsh-elder could grow (Day et al. 1989) and which supports activities of terrestrial animals. Northern diamondback terrapins are present in high numbers in the tidal creeks and they and other turtle species deposit their eggs in these spoil banks and other dry areas. Birds also use the vegetation on the spoil banks for perching and nesting.
Purpose and Methods of this Review
Many decisions about environmental planning, management, and restoration are being made for the Meadowlands and the larger estuarine system (the New York – New Jersey harbor estuary complex). Public officials, scientists, stakeholders, and the public need information on the biology and ecology of the region in order to make informed decisions. Much of the existing information is not integrated or readily available, and information is lacking on many aspects of Meadowlands science. The purpose of our report is to synthesize information about the Meadowlands into a form that is easy to find and use, and to identify those aspects of the region that need further study or synthesis.
Information about Meadowlands biology exists in several forms, especially formal scientific literature, popular literature, “gray” literature (e.g. agency reports, consulting reports), theses, maps, and the minds and files of scientists, naturalists, and outdoorspeople. We searched the scientific literature by means of commercial and library electronic databases. We located popular literature via library databases such as WorldCat and Reader’s Guide to Periodical Literature. We searched the gray literature using WorldCat, the Meadowlands Environmental Research Institute (MERI) database “Digital Meadowlands” (http://digitalmeadowlands.org) and the references cited in major environmental documents (e.g. NJTA 1986, USACOE 2000), as well as by talking with biologists and planners who have worked in the region. We also searched databases for Ph.D. theses and Master’s theses. The gray literature on the Meadowlands is extensive, and many documents are difficult to obtain and have relatively low information content. Therefore, we focused on acquiring a representative sample of recent information that was most relevant to our questions, as well as older references with particular relevance to certain issues.
We studied maps of the region, including the U.S. Geological Survey 7.5 minute topographic map quadrangles (Elizabeth N.J.-N.Y. 1995, Hackensack N.J. 1997, Jersey City N.J.-N.Y. 1967 [Photorevised 1981], Orange N.J. 1955 [Photorevised 1970], Weehawken N.J.-N.Y. 1967, Yonkers N.J.-N.Y. 1956). We also contacted a selection of the biologists and naturalists who are most experienced in the Meadowlands, but time limitations did not allow an exhaustive survey of “oral” natural history despite its apparently high value. We generally assumed the accuracy of our information sources except where one source contradicted another, or there was some reason to think the information was incomplete or inaccurate (e.g. by comparison to our own observations in the Meadowlands or our knowledge of similar environments elsewhere in the northeastern states). In this respect, we accorded more weight to information that was consistent from one source to another, and to professional scientists, naturalists, and Ph.D. candidates with long experience working in eastern estuaries or intensive experience of the Meadowlands.
Our task in finding, compiling, and analyzing information was to extract meaning from fragmentary and limited sources. Kiviat’s long experience (30 years) studying the Hudson River provided a valuable counterpoint. We anticipate that this report will require revisions as we gain access to more information and are better able to judge the accuracy and value of specific data and ideas. There has been an intensive focus on water and marsh birds in many of the studies we reviewed (due to the importance of the Meadowlands for rare birds and game birds, and the regulatory significance of birds). Therefore our report treats these groups in more detail than the other biota. In contrast, most other animals, plants, fungi, microorganisms, and ecological processes have received little study or none.
Many literature references on the Meadowlands are old, or for other reasons do not use current nomenclature for plant and animal species. We have updated scientific names of species to current nomenclature as found in Gleason and Cronquist (1991) for vascular plants and American Ornithologists’ Union (1998) for birds. We have used common names that are either current standard names (e.g. for birds, see American Ornithologists’ Union ) or which we believe to be in widespread use by biologists and naturalists in the northeastern coastal regions. In some cases, only common names are used in literature references and we have equated these to species as best we could; where doubt exists, this is noted in the text or a common name is partly or entirely enclosed in square brackets “[ ]” indicating uncertainty. “Mulberry” and “poplar” in Kane and Githens (1997) are, respectively, white mulberry (Morus alba), and quaking aspen (Populus tremuloides) with less frequent eastern cottonwood (Populus deltoides) (R. Kane, New Jersey Audubon, personal communication to EK, 2001). Occasionally we have included outdated scientific names or alternative common names where these appear prominently in the literature of the Meadowlands. We provide both common and scientific names in the text at first mention of a species; subsequently only the common name is used (scientific names of fishes and birds, however, are presented only in Appendix Tables 2-3). Only scientific names are given in the Metropolitan Flora Project database (Table 1), and we have not attempted to provide common names or conform these scientific names to any single botanical manual. “Endangered” or “Threatened” is noted parenthetically after mention of state-listed animal and plant species to call attention to this status; in cases where breeding and nonbreeding populations of a bird species are listed differently, we have used the appropriate status term.
This report underwent peer review by four biologists at local institutions (Joan Ehrenfeld, Rich Kane, Lisamarie Windham, and an anonymous reviewer) who have conducted research in the Meadowlands and are familiar with Meadowlands ecology and environmental issues. Following revision, the report was reviewed by four scientists at the Meadowlands Environmental Research Institute (MERI) (Francisco Artigas, Kirk Barrett, Brett Bragin, and Christine Hobble) and then was revised again. We take responsibility for any errors that remain in this report.
ENVIRONMENTAL SETTING AND CONDITIONS
The Hackensack Meadowlands are within the Northern Triassic Lowlands (Newark Basin), a subdivision of the Piedmont physiographic province in northeastern New Jersey. Triassic red shale and sandstone comprise the underlying bedrock (Newark Formation), which formed when sediments were depositied in the rift valley that existed in this area 200 million years ago (Schuberth 1968). Depth to bedrock ranges from 8 to 81 meters (25 to 265 feet) below the wetland surfaces (Widmer 1964). The Hackensack River Valley, in which the Meadowlands lie, is separated from the Passaic River Valley on the west by a low sandstone ridge, and from the Hudson River on the east by a narrow ridge of igneous rock (Palisades diabase, locally called “traprock”) (Day et al. 1999). Associated diabase bedrock is exposed at Laurel Hill (Snake Hill) and Little Snake Hill in Secaucus (Sipple 1972). The Palisades diabase contains variable proportions of the silicate minerals plagioclase, pyroxene, and olivine (Wolfe 1977). These minerals can vary in their content of calcium, magnesium, iron, sodium, and aluminum (Pough 1953). The Granton diabase sill, at the eastern edge of the Meadowlands in North Bergen, is a small igneous intrusion similar to the Palisades sill but separated from it by 107 m (350 feet) of Stockton sandstones and shales and Lockatong shales and argillites (Wolfe 1977). Hornfels bedrock is exposed at the Granton Quarry (van Houten 1969); hornfels occurs at the contact zones of igneous and sedimentary rocks and varies in mineral composition (Pough 1953). Elevations of wetlands in the Meadowlands range from sea level to about 3 meters above sea level (with the exception of a few ponds atop closed landfills). Bedrock outcrops at Laurel Hill rise to about 53 meters; several landfills reach about 30 meters above sea level (Day et al. 1999).
During the Wisconsin glaciation, an ice sheet extended from the northern latitudes to a terminal moraine just south of the Meadowlands. At the end of the Pleistocene, about 10,000 years ago, when the glacier began to melt and retreat northward, the terminal moraine of the glacier, extending from Staten Island in the east and through Perth Amboy, impounded glacial meltwater creating glacial Lake Hackensack (Heusser 1963, Day et al. 1999). Lake Hackensack covered a low-lying area that extended from the terminal moraine in Rahway to Tappan, New York (Reeds 1933 in Tedrow 1986). During the 2,500 to 3,000 years of the lake’s existence, thin alternating layers of silt and clay (varves) were deposited seasonally (Antevs 1928). Beds of clay up to 30 m (100 feet) thick underlie wetland sediments (Reeds 1933 in Tederow 1989). Clays are overlain by stratified sand and gravel that reach a thickness of approximately 10 feet (Reeds 1933 in Tedrow 1989). Clay bluffs 30 m high occur near the Meadowlands (Bosakowski 1983).
It is postulated that the lake ceased to exist as a result of breaching of the barrier dam (terminal moraine) to the south from gradual uplifting of the lake bottom as the land adjusted to decreased pressure from the retreating glacier (Heusser 1963). Draining of Lake Hackensack coincided with a postglacial rise in sea level of about 3 meters in the last 2,000 years, which allowed encroachment of sea water and eventually the formation of tidal marsh (Heusser 1963). The harbor estuary currently experiences a rise in sea level of about 2.7 millimeters per year (Hartig 2002).
Vermeule (1897 in Tedrow 1989) described surficial deposits in the Meadowlands as consisting of blue mud or clay with portions covered by peaty soils. Sipple (1972) described soil in the Meadowlands as predominantly peat or muck with mineral material overlying the glaciolacustrine clays. The organic soils contain the remains of aquatic plants, including logs, roots, and stumps, that accumulated in the wetlands over thousands of years. Marsh soils range from peats to mineral soils with high organic matter content, and the “peats” vary greatly in organic matter and mineral matter composition (J. Ehrenfeld, personal communication to EK and KM, 2001). Natural mineral soils also occur in limited upland areas (Sipple 1972). On the “East Site” of the proposed Meadowlands Arena, thicknesses of soil strata from top to bottom were: fill, 1.2-4.9 m (4-16 feet); dark brown peat, “meadow mat,” or organic silt 1.2-3.0 m (4-10 feet); fine sand with some silt, 0.3-0.8 m (1-2.5 feet); varved clay and silt with some sand,4.0-7.2 m (13-23.5 feet); and glacial till, 0.3-4.6 m (1-15 feet). Decomposed shale occurred 8.2-13.3 m, maximum 19.8 m (27-43.5 feet, maximum 65 feet) below Mean Sea Level (McCormick & Associates 1978).
The Bergen County soil survey described soils of the Meadowlands as “Urban land” and “Sulfihemists and Sulfaquents, frequently flooded”; the soil descriptions below are based on Goodman (1995). Urban land in the Meadowlands was described as Udorthents (cut-and-fill soils) with either a loamy substratum or a wet substratum and highly variable. The Sulfihemists and Sulfaquents map unit was described as very deep, levelor nearly level (0-1% slope), very poorly drained soils. Sulfihemists (organic soils) in the Meadowlands have at least 41 cm (16 inches), and usually more than 130 cm (51 inches) of organic material overlying mineral material. The top 30 cm (12 inches) of organic material is dark colored (gray, reddish brown, brown, or black) and highly decomposed. Below 30 cm the organic material is less decomposed but may be interbedded with highly decomposed material. The underlying mineral material is varved and ranges in texture from very gravelly sand to clay. Depth to bedrock typically exceeds 3 m (10 feet) in the Sulfihemists. The Sulfaquents (hydric mineral soils) of the Meadowlands have a surface layer of either organic material less than 41 cm thick (dark reddish brown or black, and highly decomposed) or mineral material 10-30 cm thick (dark reddish brown, very dark brown, or black silt loam or fine sandy loam with organic content less than 20%). The underlying mineral material is varved with a wide range of color and with textures in the same range as those of the material underlying the Sulfihemists. Depth to bedrock exceeds 1.8 m in the Sulfaquents. Both Sulfihemists and Sulfaquents have high available water capacity. The organic material is characterized by rapid or very rapid permeability, and the mineral material has variable permeability. Both soils have very slow runoff. Both soils are neutral or slightly acidic throughout when moist; however, when dried these soils are strongly acidic or very strongly acidic. The Sulfihemists and Sulfaquents have severe limitations (wetness, flooding) for building site development and “sanitary facilities” (i.e. sewage treatment systems and sanitary landfills) (Goodman 1995).
Little seismic activity has been associated with the Newark Basin in recent history. The epicenter of one earthquake during the period 1962-1977, shown by Aggarwal and Sykes (1978), was in, or close to, the Meadowlands.
Much evidence for the development of plant communities has been gained through studies of pollen, spores, other plant remains, and foraminifera in peat core samples as well as historical accounts of the vegetation. There is significant evidence that wetlands that developed on the lake sediments were dominated by freshwater plant associations for thousands of years. Analysis of pollen and other plant remains in peat core samples from Secaucus demonstrate that there was a progression of plant communities over several thousand years, reflecting climatic and salinity changes in the Meadowlands (Heusser 1963, Harmon and Tedrow 1969). The oldest peat samples taken from Secaucus were dated at 2,025 300 years B.P. (Heusser 1963). Peat cores in the Meadowlands indicate that the organic material was deposited by freshwater plants (Heusser 1963, Harmon and Tedrow 1969). Salt marsh peat later developed over these freshwater peats (Tedrow 1989).
The first postglacial wetland community in the area was dominated by black ash (Fraxinus nigra) and then a mixture of black ash and northern peatland species including tamarack (Larix laricina) and black spruce (Picea mariana). More than 500 years ago, Atlantic white cedar (Chamaecyparis thyoides) moved into the area. Atlantic white cedar had been established in more southern areas of New Jersey for thousands of years (e.g. Rosenwinkel 1964). Finally, the peat cores show that the Atlantic white cedar wetlands were encroached upon from the periphery by marsh composed of Olney three-square (Scirpus americanus [S. olneyi]), black rush (Juncus gerardii, also called “black grass”), and narrowleaf cattail (Typha angustifolia), all either salt or brackish marsh species, according to Heusser (1963). A core taken just west of the Hackensack River on the north side of Route 3 showed a discontinuity between a basal clay and the oldest organic deposit radiocarbon dated at 2,610 ± 130 years before present (YBP) (Carmichael 1980). Above the clay were 100 cm of alder (Alnus) peat, then 160 cm of sedge (Cyperaceae) peat, and finally 120 of silty reed (Phragmites) muck. The alder-sedge transition was dated 2,060 ± 120 YBP, and the sedge-reed transition lay between dates of 810 ± 110 YBP and 240 ± 110 YBP. The reed muck was characterized by various weedy plants associated with human disturbance (Carmichael 1980).
The harvest of salt hay (primarily saltmeadow cordgrass [Spartina patens]) in the Meadowlands at least as early as 1697 (Quinn 1997), and old maps showing salt marsh, indicate that salt marsh occupied fairly extensive areas of the Meadowlands at that time. However, surveys conducted in the early 1800s (Torrey 1819) did not report significant coverage by brackish marsh species in the Meadowlands. Common reed (Phragmites australis) was not reported by Torrey in 1819, though it may have been present as indicated by its occurrence in nearby Elizabethtown (now Elizabeth) (Sipple 1972). In a list of species found in New Jersey published in 1877, common reed is listed as occurring in the Hackensack Meadows (Willis 1877 in Yuhas 2001). Interestingly, peat profiles published by Waksman (1942) show common reed occurred widely in lowland peat deposits in New Jersey, including at least one site in the Meadowlands, at depths where the reed materials must have been deposited in pre-Columbian times. Harshberger and Burns (1919) describe salt marsh vegetation along the creeks and the river. In addition, they report extensive areas of brackish marsh covered by common reed and less brackish areas dominated by cattails. Vermeule’s maps indicate that islands of cedar swamp still existed between lower Berry’s Creek and the Hackensack River and in areas of Carlstadt, East Rutherford, and Ridgefield until the late 1800s (Tedrow 1989). Therefore, evidence suggests that the extensive brackish and salt marsh communities of the Meadowlands of today and the now-ubiquitous common reed were present before European settlement but it is unclear how extensive different plant communities were at various times. The apparent contradictions among different sets of palaeoecological and historic evidence concerning Meadowlands vegetation may be due to the temporal and spatial variation in plant community coverage as well as to the inherently coarse scale and potential sources of error in the methods of both paleoecology and environmental history. The distribution of brackish marsh and common reed is related to the context of colonial settlement and changes that occurred during the last three centuries.
Fire may have also had an impact on the development of plant communities. As organic materials from plants accumulate in marshes and peatlands, surface elevation gradually increases above the water table (Harmon and Tedrow 1969). After these dried peats are burned, the surface elevation is substantially decreased. Harmon and Tedrow (1969) found buried ash in soil cores suggesting that ancient fires may have been fairly common in the Meadowlands.
The first human inhabitants, Paleoindians, occupied the Northeast from 14,000 to 10,000 years ago (Quinn 1997). It is not known exactly when the Lenape arrived in the region but they were present by 9,000 years ago in the Hackensack valley. The word “Hackensack” probably derives from one of two Lenape phrases: Hackink Saquik (a stream that unites with another on low ground) or Hocquan Sakuwit (hooked mouth of a river) (Quinn 1997). At the time of European colonization, the Lenape lived in small, permanent settlements (Kraft 1986). Henry Hudson’s arrival in 1609 marked the beginnings of Dutch colonization and Lenape-Dutch trade (Quinn 1997). The area remained sparsely populated with a few scattered villages, plantations, and farms until as late as 1680. By the early 1700s, however, the area had been rapidly settled (Quinn 1997).
With settlement came land use practices that profoundly shaped the Meadowlands ecosystems as we know them today. Settlers practiced burning of woods and fields in fall and spring (Thayer 1964) which may have lead to subsidence of peat marshes and decline of Atlantic white cedar forests. The cedar was harvested for a variety of purposes, including a supply of timber for shipmasts for the British navy (Quinn 1997). By the late 1700s, the first attempts at building roads across the marshes used Atlantic white cedar planks (Mattson 1970). The locations of these roads now support Bellville Pike and Paterson Plank Road (Mattson 1970). By 1821, people were brought in by rail to pick “huckleberries” (Gaylussacia or Vaccinium) in the Meadowlands (Mattson 1970). The 1800s saw many projects attempting to drain and dike the Meadowlands. The goals were to prevent tidal inundation and reduce muskrats in order to make the marshes suitable for agriculture. The most notable of these endeavors was the Iron Dike Land Reconstruction, which erected a dike enclosing a large area from the Passaic River north into Sawmill Creek in 1867 (Mattson 1970, Sipple 1972). The dike effectively cut off tidal water and drained the diked area, probably resulting in the loss of a large section of Atlantic white cedar swamp (Sipple 1972). Furthermore, the project failed in its attempt to reclaim land for agriculture because the decrease in inundation of the underlying peats caused uneven subsidence, up to 1.1 meters (3.5 feet), which prevented uniform irrigation and farming (Waksman 1942, Mattson 1970). Drainage probably also made the remaining cedar swamps more vulnerable to fire. Lowering of the water table, higher salinity, fire, and harvest eliminated the cedar forests (Kraus 1988).
While most agricultural reclamation endeavors failed in one way or another, the harvesting of salt hay required no reclamation although it benefited from decreased frequency of tidal flooding (Quinn 1997). Salt hay farming began as early as the late 1600s and remained successful and active until the 1950s when pollution and common reed invasion reportedly brought this industry to an end (Quinn 1997). Because of uncertainties about the actual coverage of high salt marsh (salt meadow) vegetation at different historical periods (see Paleoecology, above), it is difficult to say how extensive salt hay harvesting areas may have been in any historical period. The muskrat, once considered a pest because it burrowed beneath crops and consumed plant roots, became an increasingly valuable commodity. By 1918, muskrat pelts were more valuable than any crop and muskrat persistence in the Meadowlands was encouraged (Quinn 1997).
In the early 1900s, tidal marsh drainage and diking projects for mosquito control began in the Meadowlands. Under the leadership of mosquito biologist Thomas Headlee (1945), diking, ditching, and tidegating on a massive scale severely altered the hydrology of the Meadowlands (Quinn 1997). The building of dikes and drainage features probably facilitated the spread of common reed (Sipple 1972). Quinn (1997) mentions that mats of common reed, which was already ubiquitous in the northern Meadowlands, were used by workers to cross wet areas in these early diking projects. Headlee (1945:280-281) pointed out that both dead and living common reed materials were used to create and strengthen dikes for mosquito control in the Meadowlands. Hydrological changes were exacerbated by the building of the Oradell Dam on the Hackensack River in 1922. The dam cut off most of the freshwater flow to the Meadowlands, allowing brackish water to intrude farther upriver (Sipple 1972).
The ramifications of widespread agricultural and mosquito control projects, coupled with sea level rise, were the decline of freshwater wetland communities and the rapid expansion of brackish and salt marsh communities throughout the Meadowlands (Sipple 1972). Peatlands that were cut off from tidal inundation in some cases dried and subsided. In addition, in 1950 a major storm breached many of the water control structures in the Meadowlands, allowing brackish tides to flood these areas (Black 1970).
While these major hydrological alterations were occurring, the region was on its way to being one of the largest urban-industrial centers in the world. In the late 1700s, there was already a leather tanning industry in the Newark area (Crawford et al. 1994). During the 1800s and 1900s, paint, textile, petroleum, chemical, plastics, and pharmaceutical industries became established and expanded rapidly (Crawford et al. 1994). Many of the waste products from these industries, as well as raw sewage from the large urban population, were dumped directly into creeks, rivers, and wetlands (Crawford et al. 1994). Overharvesting coupled with severe declines in water quality caused decreases in fish populations as early as 1885, and by 1926 fish life was considered “destroyed” (Crawford et al. 1994). The Meadowlands currently have 1,012 hectares (2,500 acres) of solid waste landfills, the result of more than a century of dumping garbage from the large population and industrial activities of the New York metropolitan area (Quinn 1997). Today all but one of the landfills have been closed or are inactive (J. Quinn, personal communication to EK, 2001); the single remaining landfill is used for construction and demolition debris.
With increasing industrialization and population growth came the need for improved transportation in the Meadowlands. Dredging of shipping channels in the Hackensack River has occurred frequently since 1900 (Crawford et al. 1994), and most of the dredged material (spoil) was presumably deposited in the marshes and shallows. The seemingly insurmountable task of traversing the Meadowlands was due to the soft muck, over 30 m (100 feet) deep in some places (Sullivan 1998). A modest railway had already been built in the Meadowlands from Paterson to New York by 1830 (Quinn 1997). By the early 1900s, railroads on filled and graded beds traversed the Meadowlands, again affecting hydrology (Quinn 1997). There were many small roads, ferries, and drawbridges that allowed travel through the Meadowlands but journeys were time-consuming until the opening of the massive Pulaski Skyway in 1932, which connected Jersey City and the Holland Tunnel to Newark (Sullivan 1998). The New Jersey Turnpike, which bisects the Meadowlands from north to south, was in operation by the early 1950s (Quinn 1997).
Filling of wetlands to build railroad and road beds and to reclaim land for industrial and residential development was extensive during the past 150 years, resulting in further decreases in wetland area and changes in hydrologic function. In recent decades alone, filling of wetlands in the area has reduced their extent from 8,100 hectares (20,000 acres) to about 3,400 hectares (8,400 acres) (Day et al. 1999). Contradictions in the literature regarding vegetation history of the Meadowlands may be due to the complex mosaic of plant communities in space and time. Natural and human disturbance has created an ecological palimpsest, and the fragmentary views afforded by paleoecological and historic methods may be detecting different communities at different places and times. An ongoing historical study by Tamara Shapiro (Rutgers University) addresses these issues. The Hackensack Meadowlands have been referred to in older literature as the Hackensack Meadows or the Newark Marshes (e.g. Abbott 1907).