Finding nature in an industrial swamp: a case study of New Jersey's Hackensack meadowlands

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Montana State University - Bozeman, College of Letters & Science


The Hackensack Meadowlands is a large tidal marsh ecosystem and state-designated planning district located in heavily urbanized northeastern New Jersey. Because the Meadowlands' wetlands had been perceived as worthless, dangerous, and a barrier to progress, over half of the Meadowlands' wetlands disappeared under drainage ditches and developers' fill as Greater New York expanded in the eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth centuries. Yet, today 8,400 acres of wetlands remain there; this dissertation seeks to explain why. This dissertation analyzes environmental preservation efforts in the Meadowlands from 1968 to 2004, including legislative efforts to pass the Hackensack Meadowlands Reclamation and Development Act in 1968, early Hackensack Meadowlands Development Commission planning efforts and environmentalists' attempts to block construction of an incinerator and the Meadowlands Sports Complex in the early 1970s, the Environmental Protection Agency's veto of fill permits filed under Section 404 of the Clean Water Act in the 1980s, and grassroots environmentalists' efforts to block a Special Area Management Plan and the construction of the Meadowlands Mills Mall at the end of the twentieth century. These efforts culminated in the HMDC's adoption of a Master Plan in 2004 which barred all new development on the Meadowlands' wetlands. In each of these episodes, this dissertation analyzes the ways in which people defined nature, and the human relationship to it, in this place over time, and it explains how those definitions of nature shaped policy and the Meadowlands' landscape. It argues that 8,400 acres of wetlands remains in the United States' most densely populated metropolitan area stands as a testament to Americans' willingness to embrace humanized landscapes within their understandings of nature and their ability to force the environmental management system to protect such landscapes.




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