Laurel Hill Offers Biodiversity in the Shadow of the New Jersey Turnpike
With more than 600,000 drivers each day, the northern half of the New Jersey Turnpike is among the most widely traveled roads in America. For the most part, it’s not a pretty sight. The industrial wastelands, abandoned factories and former landfills that pass for scenery are arguably the biggest reason for New Jersey’s less-than-stellar reputation across the nation.
Amazingly, there’s a spot next to the Turnpike, less than 10 miles from New York City, which is living, breathing proof that, given time, nature can rebound from just about anything, if we allow it to.
Laurel Hill serves as an astounding example of nature overcoming decades of rampant pollution to reclaim an unlikely area. This jagged rocky outcropping, which the Turnpike’s eastern spur uses as a stepping stone over the marshes known as the Meadowlands, is the only natural break from the flat lowlands for miles. From the highway, its graffiti-covered walls and tree-topped plateau make a memorable reference point for drivers, but it doesn’t exactly shout out, "Nature."
Yet from below the Turnpike, Laurel Hill is a completely different place, looming above like the Rock of Gibraltar. In fact, in 1896, a New York City ad executive thought the same thing. He was inspired enough by this landmark rising above the swamps that he believed his insurance company could demonstrate its reliability and rock-solid foundation through a connection to "the rock." Thus was the famous Prudential Insurance logo born in the much-maligned swamps of the Meadowlands.
The approach to Laurel Hill winds past abandoned buildings and factories, which soon give way to kids playing soccer and an older couple walking their retriever on a ballpark carved out of the marshes. A huge, stunningly beautiful red-tailed hawk, with a wingspan of four feet, alternately glides and calmly flaps its wings above the road for a good 15 seconds before taking a sharp right turn over the Hackensack River marsh.
More kids climb on a riverside playground, and in the water beyond is a handful of cormorants, including one taking off low to the water like a seaplane. At Laurel Hill, you can spot waders such as herons, egrets, bitterns and glossy ibis, and predators such as ospreys, hawks, falcons and owls, with even the occasional bald eagle.
According to Bill Sheehan, the Hackensack Riverkeeper, "In the high grounds of Laurel Hill, you can still hear gamecock and pheasants. These birds weren’t brought in here for hunting. They’re real natives, born and bred in the Meadowlands."
Phragmites, the tall marsh reeds with feathery-plumed tips, are omnipresent, prospering in the oft-polluted places where most plants can’t survive. It wasn’t always like this.
Only 200 years ago, half of the Meadowlands was covered by a white cedar forest, much of which was burned down because it provided cover for bandits and pirates. The remaining forest died out when the Hackensack River was dammed upstream, resulting in an invasion of salt water.
While nature has been able to bounce back repeatedly from man’s carelessness, "The Rock" of Laurel Hill was nearly eradicated permanently. Before 1960, it had already survived decades of serving as a prison, mental asylum, poorhouse, hospital and graffiti canvas.
In the early 1960s, however, Hudson County leased Laurel Hill to a traprock quarry, which proceeded to demolish three-quarters of it within five years, lowering its height by 50 feet in the process. The remainder would have soon followed if not for the vibrating of the Turnpike when the blasting got too close. It was certainly a new role for the New Jersey Turnpike: guardian of nature.
A path carved from the boulders leads to the top of Laurel Hill. Amazingly enough, this is ancient volcanic rock, pushed up an estimated 180 million years ago. This five-minute hike brings a view that was shared by Continental Army soldiers who used it as a lookout point during the Revolutionary War.
Below, the greens of windswept reeds and phragmites are intersected constantly by the twisting, interlocking Hackensack and Passaic Rivers, canal drainages, raised highways and railroad tracks. The 360-degree view reveals 32 square miles of wide-open flatlands bordered in the distance on all sides by the densely populated areas of northern New Jersey and New York City.
After the near-destruction of Laurel Hill, it stood fallow with hardly any human intrusion through the 1970s and 1980s. As the economy rebounded in the 1990s, there was far more pressure to develop the land. "At that point, we basically threw a park in front of the bulldozers," says Sheehan. In 1997, Laurel Hill County Park was born.
Laurel Hill is an important habitat for pheasants, falcons, muskrats, herons, egrets and even the occasional bald eagle.
Canoeing and pontoon tours are now offered by the Hackensack Riverkeeper for close-up views of the thriving wildlife, twisting channels and the occasional floating tire, reminders of a bleak past giving way to a hopeful future. Last summer, more than 1,000 people took part in these eco-cruises, and Sheehan expects growth to continue as awareness spreads among the public, which has thus far shown a somewhat surprising interest in rediscovering a piece of nature which had been given up for dead years ago.
Lately, jetskis and even swimmers are appearing in the Meadowlands, as dumping has been outlawed and the cleaning process accelerated. "At this point in time, swimming is not advisable," says Sheehan. "But a big part of my mission as Hackensack Riverkeeper is to make sure these waters become swimmable again."
For some, it’s swimmable now. A muskrat paddles across the rain-filled roadside gully and then ambles across the road. It resembles a small beaver except for its narrow tail. Like beavers, muskrats build lodges out of sticks, twigs, cattails and bulrushes, reinforcing them with mud. These lodges have underwater entrances, and the hardy muskrat can hold its breath for up to 15 minutes.
The muskrat is a highly adaptable creature, and its plight in the Meadowlands has actually improved over the years, since the generations of former muskrat hunters have largely abandoned the trade. But muskrats aren’t the only sizable animals that have carved out a niche in this altered, semi-natural environment. The northern diamondback terrapin, red fox, snapping turtle, raccoon, rabbit, skunk, opossum and blue crab, all animals that do well living close to people, have adapted nicely to the rapid changes of the Meadowlands.
Thirty years ago, there were virtually no fish and no recreational fishing, according to Sheehan. There were 100 species of birds in the Meadowlands, but few of them built their nests there. Now, thanks to the Clean Water Act and the work of people like Sheehan, the Meadowlands hosts 265 species of birds, 63 of which nest there, and of those, 12 or 13 are threatened or endangered in New Jersey as a whole. Sheehan does not exaggerate when he says, "The Meadowlands had bottomed out ecologically, but now the estuary is alive with an amazing amount of biodiversity."