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Hackensack Meadowlands, New Jersey, Biodiversity

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Non-capped landfills and miscellaneous garbage dumps are leaching nutrients and contaminants into wetlands. One such dump, for example, is in Kearny Marsh West, one of the most important bird habitats in the Meadowlands. Remediation of sediment contamination in Kearny West is under consideration by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (L. Houston, personal communication to EK, 2002). Refuse may be a hazard to wildlife (e.g. plastic six-pack collars strangling water birds). Garbage-polluted wetlands and water-filled containers are probably an ideal breeding habitat for Culex pipiens (see e.g. Headlee 1945:284-285), one of the mosquitoes believed to be a vector of West Nile virus. Non-capped landfills and miscellaneous dumps should be remediated or removed. Also, we have noticed a large amount of roadside trash in some areas of the Meadowlands. Local communities might be able to clean up and control roadside littering and dumping by means of stronger ordinances, enforcement, and public education, as has been done for other natural open spaces throughout the state. We think there would be public support for such activities.

Management of Invasive Plants
The interagency management plan for the Meadowlands (USFWS et al. 2000) states, “Invasive species of particular concern in the Meadowlands include common reed, purple loosestrife, mugwort, ailanthus (Ailanthus altissima), and Japanese knotweed (Polygonum cuspidatum). These plants tend to proliferate in nearly monotypic stands to the detriment of native plant species. This proliferation alters the basic character of the affected plant community and reduces habitat diversity and habitat value for many of the species of management concern. Additionally, proliferation of these invasive species on a large scale can adversely affect ecosystem processes including primary production, nutrient cycling, and hydrology. Meeting the goals and objectives in this management plan must include measures to control and possibly eliminate invasive species.” These statements do not consider recent literature regarding the functions and values of common reed stands. Hartman and Smith (1999) state, “The primary methods of controlling Phragmites will be to restore tidal flushing by altering topography and/or the creation of impoundments with adequate water depth. This approach is not feasible in some areas because of the high levels of contaminants, which may be mobilized by earth moving activities. This problem is common throughout the Meadowlands District, so it is important for HMDC to identify alternative methods to eliminate or control Phragmites. We will evaluate alternative methods of controlling Phragmites, such as soil amendments to change salinity or pH, mowing, and combinations of methods, as needed.”
We believe that findings of recent reed research require a new approach to management of reed in the Meadowlands, and indeed throughout the northeastern states. It is time for the emphasis to shift from eradication to alteration of reed stands. There is an urgent need for well designed and monitored small and large scale experiments in reed management for specific goals. At some sites in the Meadowlands, these goals would optimize water quality amelioration, habitat for nektonic animals (fishes, crabs, etc.), and habitat for marsh and water birds. Other considerations may include immobilization of contaminants, soil stabilization and accretion, muskrat habitat, and aesthetics. What is best for one site and combination of goals may be unsuitable for the next situation. All management, mitigation, and restoration projects should be accompanied by quantitative documentation and monitoring that meet reasonable scientific standards and that are recorded in written documents; documents and data should be available to the public.
Although many research and biological survey projects have been conducted in the Meadowlands, there is much that needs study to improve the basis for making planning and management decisions. Meadowlands research has been inhibited at times by a perception that there is little worthy of study in urban, degraded, or altered ecosystems, difficulties of access to sites, challenges of working in extensive stands of dense reed (see e.g. Wander and Wander 1995), and focus on limited aspects of Meadowlands ecosystems. The conspectus of research needs, below, grows from our synthesis of available information on the Meadowlands. We do not consider this discussion comprehensive and admit of our possible biases as ecologists who focus on higher organisms.
Invasive Plants
The sheer abundance and poor current knowledge of the ecology of tree-of-heaven, mugwort, Japanese knotweed, common reed, purple loosestrife, princess tree, and other invasive species demand that we learn more about them to allow sensible management decisions (see Kiviat submitted b). The relationship of invasive plants to trust species (i.e. species protected by law including game species, migratory birds, and endangered species), especially birds and fishes, is an important subject. Also, ecological interactions of reed and other invasives with other biota in general should be studied. We need to understand the long-term development of soil, vegetation, and wildlife in reed stands in the absence of active management. Research on alternative methods of managing reed is also important (see above). The considerable European literature on reed ecology and management is useful in this regard.
Rare Plants
Rare plant surveys should be conducted widely in the Meadowlands, focusing first on sites likely to be altered for development, mitigation, or management. Surveys should include species of regional significance as well as species listed statewide by the New Jersey Natural Heritage Program. “Pristine” habitats are not required by many rare plants, some of which occur in abandoned mines, on vacant lots, in recently abandoned farm fields, and on dredge spoil deposits in the New York City region (EK, personal observations).
Although birds are the best-studied organisms of the Meadowlands, many important questions remain. Larger scale patterns of bird use and movement among Meadowlands sites, and between the Meadowlands and nearby areas, need elucidation. For example, the role of the Meadowlands as a foraging area for the “harbor herons” and the locally breeding peregrine falcons (Endangered) needs further study. Research should be conducted on the relative roles of vegetation, inundation, and other local habitat features vs. patterns of the larger landscape in determining the distribution of birds in the Meadowlands. Many details of how birds use common reed stands and other wetland and upland plant communities remain to be studied, including comparative density and productivity of birds in different wetland habitats at different seasons, and use of other invasive species (such as tree-of-heaven) by birds. Studies of the diets and food base of birds in the Meadowlands would also further our understanding of how the Meadowlands support such abundance and diversity of birds.
Fish Populations
Surveys of fish use of smaller tributaries, creeks, and ditches at all seasons are badly needed. Also, surveys of early life stages (eggs, larvae, and juveniles) are needed to identify important spawning and nursery habitats (some of which may be outside the Meadowlands). More extensive survey work is needed in light of recent improvements in water quality and the continued consideration of altering existing marshes.
The paucity of information on terrestrial invertebrates (i.e. species that do not have an aquatic life stage, whether they occur in uplands or wetlands) impedes understanding of food webs, habitat functions (of e.g. fill, reed stands), invasive plant ecology, and other important subjects. Basic biological surveys are needed as well as functional studies addressing topics such as the role of terrestrial invertebrates in soil development on fill, and the function of terrestrial invertebrates as food for fishes. Additional work on aquatic invertebrates is needed as well, because studies to date have been limited in taxonomic and ecological scope. In addition to the aquatic invertebrates of low salinity wetlands, studies should be conducted on special habitats and taxa (such as the clam-shrimp in puddles on a dirt road, see Aquatic Invertebrates, above). Non-target impacts of mosquito management on other invertebrates and other elements of biodiversity and ecosystem function should be addressed.
Other Groups of Organisms
An area that is being developed and managed as intensively as the Meadowlands, and that has such high values associated with its habitat and ecological functions, should be thoroughly understood biologically. This will require additional studies of relatively well known groups (e.g. marsh and water birds) as well as many poorly known groups (e.g. fungi, lichens, mosses, algae, and most invertebrates).
Toxic Contaminants and Biota
That water and marsh birds are abundant in the Meadowlands does not necessarily mean the Meadowlands are as “healthy” an environment for wildlife as they could be. Behavior and ecology of potentially sensitive species, such as black-crowned night-heron and tree swallow, should be compared to relatively non-contaminated areas to determine if individuals and populations in the Meadowlands are adversely affected by contaminants. Species that are likely to accumulate high body burdens of contaminants from their prey should also be studied; for example, PCB accumulation in double-crested cormorants which eat (among other prey) American eels and European carp, and snapping turtles which were shown to be highly contaminated in the Hudson River, needs to be examined. Basic study of contaminant fate and transport, and the potential for bioremediation in existing plant communities, should precede further intensive alteration of marsh ecosystems (J. Ehrenfeld, personal communication to EK and KM, 2001). Potential tidal transport up the Hackensack River of contaminants remobilized by dredging in Newark Bay and New York Bay needs study.
Functions and Processes
Most of the information available on the Meadowlands pertains to taxonomy, distribution, and in some cases abundance and behavior (e.g. reproduction or foraging). There is very little information on other functional aspects of populations such as the diet, productivity, mortality, and population dynamics of animals, and the environmental tolerances, biomass production, pathology, and herbivory of plants. Lack of this information for target species makes it difficult to predict the responses of organisms to restoration or other changes in the environment. There is also virtually no information on carbon storage or release, removal and sequestration of nitrogen vs. loss to estuarine waters, sediment accretion and erosion budgets, fire regimes, and other ecosystem-level processes. Knowledge of the transformations of nitrogen, for example, by soils and vegetation in the Meadowlands would allow better understanding and evaluation of the contributions of different habitats to maintenance of water quality in the Hackensack River and its tributaries. Phosphorus should be added to the list of water quality parameters monitored.
Behavior and ecological influences of fire in the Meadowlands should be studied to enable design of firebreaks for protection of developed areas, and to improve understanding of which habitats need protection from fire and how to manage accidentally burned areas. Prescribed fire could be considered as a component of certain habitat management programs.
There appears to be little organized information on hydrology of the tributaries, tidal creeks, and marshes (tidal and impounded) of the Hackensack River estuary. Effective management and restoration will be nearly impossible without increased study of hydrology. An ongoing modelling study will address this issue (MERI, personal community to EK, 2002).
Small Areas of Habitat
The biological and ecological significance of large habitat units such as the Carlstadt-Moonachie site is appropriately of great interest, but little attention is being paid to smaller areas. Many such areas exist where the landscape has been fragmented by transportation infrastructure and other development. Small habitat units may be important to some mobile animals that can cross barriers such as highways, as well as to small or sedentary organisms such as insects and plants.
The Landscape
Much of what we know about the Meadowlands is at the level of individual species and habitat units. There is virtually no information at the level of the landscape, e.g. how organisms and materials move through space and across habitat boundaries. (An exception is the “Hackensack River Migratory Bird Report” [Kane and Githens 1997] which considered the habitat support of migratory birds region-wide.) Ecological information at a larger scale is required before ecology can be integrated with zoning, land use planning, restoration design, waste site remediation, and other planning and management activities.
We are grateful for assistance, advice, and information from: Carolyn Summers, Jennifer Danis, Nellie Tsipoura, Hank Smeal (Natural Resources Defense Council); Rich Kane, Glenn Mahler (New Jersey Audubon); Bill Sheehan, Hugh Carola (Hackensack Riverkeeper); Ed Lloyd (Columbia University); Susan Kraham (Rutgers Environmental Law Clinic); Judith Weis, Joan Ehrenfeld, Jean Marie Hartman, David Bart, Marian Norris, Beth Ravit (Rutgers University); Robert Ceberio, Franco Montalto, John Quinn, Ken Scarlatelli, Ed Konsevick, Anne Galli, Debbie Lawlor (NJMC); Kirk Barrett, Francisco Artigas, Christine Hobble, Brett Bragin (Meadowlands Environmental Research Institute); Lisamarie Windham (Lehigh University); Terry Doss (Louis Berger Group); Paul Castelli (New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection); Andrew Milliken, Robert Russell (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service); Kerry Anne Donohue (U.S. Army Corps of Engineers); Wade Wander and Sharon Wander (Wander Ecological Services); Gerry Moore, Steve Glenn, Steven Clemants (Brooklyn Botanic Garden); Joseph Labriola, Patrick Cooney, Bill Standaert, DeeAnn Ipp (Torrey Botanical Society); David Grossmueller (Paulus Sokolowski and Sartor, Inc.); Catherine McIntyre (The Wetlands Institute and Hampshire College); Peddrick Weis (University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey); Megan Callus (Baykeeper); A.E. Schuyler (Academy of Natural Sciences); Bob Dirig (Cornell University); Nancy Slack (Russell Sage College); an anonymous reviewer (Fairleigh Dickinson University); Gretchen Stevens, Dwane Decker, Bill Bakaitis, Kerri-Ann Norton, Bettina Hajagos, Bob Schmidt (Hudsonia Ltd.); and the Bard College Library. Gabrielle Gordon (NJMC and MERI) prepared the maps. Funding for preparation of this report was provided by the Mary Jean and Frank P. Smeal Foundation, the H2O Fund (Highlands to Ocean Fund), and the Hackensack Meadowlands Partnership. This is Bard College Field Station – Hudsonia Contribution 81.
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Erik Kiviat, Ph.D. is Executive Director of Hudsonia Ltd., a nonprofit institute for environmental research and public education. He is also Professor of Environmental Studies in the Center for Environmental Policy at Bard College. Erik’s research interests are in biodiversity assessment and conservation, wetland ecology and management, and the ecology and management of invasive plants. Hudsonia can be reached at P.O. Box 5000, Annandale NY 12504 or
Kristi MacDonald, M.S., is a candidate for the Ph.D. at Rutgers University. Her research addresses bird communities of urban swamps in northeastern New Jersey. She is interested in the interface of science and land use policy in urban landscapes.

1 Excluding the narrow extension along the Hackensack River north of Teterboro.

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