Imagining the future is what the Regional Plan Association does.
In the case of the New Jersey Meadowlands, they’ve come up with a doozy of an idea: Create a new national park in an urban landscape scarred by some of the worst blight of the industrial age.
Yet among the hazardous waste sites, roads and bridges, abandoned power plants, and long-closed garbage dumps, the Meadowlands still claims thousands of acres of wetlands supporting a unique ecosystem with an array of wildlife and fish.
Rising seas and climate change, however, threaten both the manmade and natural systems in the sprawling Meadowlands, a 30-square-mile region in northeastern New Jersey where permanent flooding could displace residents and businesses by the end of the century.
In the RPA’s Fourth Regional Plan released last fall, the planning organization proposed a different scenario — making the Meadowlands a national park to demonstrate how natural landscapes can help mitigate and adapt to the impacts of climate change.
The concept envisions moving in small steps, starting with today’s natural, vacant, or publicly owned lands — redrawing and expanding the park’s boundaries as sea levels rise and residents, businesses, and communities recede from the water’s edge.
“It is going to need significant investment, political will, and support of the public to make it thrive,’’ acknowledged Robert Freudenberg, vice president of energy and environment at the RPA. He joined other staff and conservationists yesterday on a boat tour of Meadowlands marshes and tidal areas along the Hackensack River, as part of a pitch for the idea of a national park.
Guided by Capt. Bill Sheehan, the Hackensack Riverkeeper, the tour offered glimpses of the diversity of the Meadowlands — bald eagles perched in a tree along the river, ospreys atop manmade nests high above the marshes, and egrets feeding in the mudflats.
One of the last remaining contiguous tracts of urban open space in the Northeast, the Meadowlands is designated a regionally significant natural resource by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
No one questions how complex the task would be. Former Gov. Jim Florio, an RPA board director, noted that much of the Meadowlands is privately held. “How are you going to carve out a park?’’ he wondered. “It’s just a matter of priorities.’’
A first step would mean adopting a new master plan for the Meadowlands, a step already endorsed by the new president and CEO of the New Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority, Freudenberg said.
Then would come a push for legislation designating the Meadowlands as a national park by Congress, a step that would be led by the state and park advocates. Following that, local communities within the boundary would move to transfer existing parks, protected wetlands, vacant land, and state-owned property (approximately 10,000 acres) to the federal government.
Eventually, a buy-out program would be established to purchase land that cannot be protected, a version of the state’s Blue Acres program, which acquires flood-prone properties in the Passaic River Basin and along the coast.
“You start to pull together pieces like that and you can begin to see it start to take shape,’’ Freudenberg said.