Image: Eco-tourism in the Meadowlands
AP file
In this file photo, a boat travels through Mill Creek Point Park in Secaucus. N.J. State officials are trying to promote "eco-tourism" — conservation-minded outdoor travel — that is generally identified more with lush, faraway destinations such as Costa Rica or the Galapagos Islands.
updated 10/12/2006 4:45:11 PM ET 2006-10-12T20:45:11

New Jersey's Meadowlands conjures images of a football stadium, swamps, burning landfills, industrial wasteland and, perhaps, the final resting place of Jimmy Hoffa.

Not to be deterred, the state is trying to make the area less than five miles west of Manhattan into a destination for tree-hugging tourists.

The New Jersey Meadowlands Commission has released a 72-page color guide to bird watching and fishing in the Meadowlands and wildlife trails in the Hackensack River Watershed.

“The Meadowlands area is a hidden gem,” Susan Bass Levin, commissioner of the New Jersey Department of Community Affairs. “People don't think of it as a place for wildlife and birding, but it is.”

The Meadowlands is more than just the area around Giants Stadium and the adjacent arena and racetrack. Both the Hackensack River and New Jersey Turnpike bisect its 32 square miles, located west of the Hudson River directly across from Manhattan. Portions of 14 towns in Hudson and Bergen counties make up the Meadowlands district, including the towns of Secaucus, Rutherford, Teterboro and parts of Jersey City.

State officials are trying to promote “eco-tourism” here, the conservation-minded outdoor travel that is generally identified more with lush, faraway destinations such as Costa Rica or the Galapagos Islands.

Levin said the area described in the new guide is home to 26 endangered or threatened bird species.

Levin, who grew up in Bergen County, said she remembers driving through the Meadowlands as a child to get to her grandparents' house in Brooklyn. She recalls catching a whiff of what smelled like rotting trash and what her brother called “the gooey farm.”

“Just the smell was enough to make you want to turn away,” she said. “It had a particularly bad smell, and you certainly didn't want to go there. A lot has changed. The birds have come back and people have come back.”

The change first began with the federal Clean Water Act in 1972, and animals started to return in higher numbers about five years ago, she said.

Today, the Hackensack River is home to nearly 100 species of fish and shellfish and 200 bird species, including bald eagles that use the Meadowlands as a migratory stopover, according to the guide.

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The Meadowlands Commission has been pushing “eco-tourism” in the area since 1994, when it began guided canoe and pontoon boat tours in the area. What started with two trips each in the spring and fall has turned into dozens of outings. In 2004, 657 people went along.

State officials hope more will come with the guide, which provides three different sections about trails in the Meadowlands.

“Meet at the Meadowlands” offers an overview. The other sections are geared to families with children and to more serious hikers.

The sections give ideas of what animals to see during each season, as well as suggestions about where to park and how to get there by public transportation.

The Meadowlands Commission paid for the guide, called “Birding and Wildlife Trails: Meadowlands and More,” at a cost of $370,000, Levin said. About 84,000 of the guides, free to the public, have been printed in English and Spanish.

Katie Maschman, the membership and communications director for the International Ecotourism Society in Washington, D.C., said it's exciting to hear about eco-tourism in an unconventional area, but could not guess whether it would succeed.

“But based on industry experiences, making decisions on corporate, social responsibility and environmental responsibility does prove successful,” she said.

Levin said the commission plans to market the booklet to local and national audiences, pushing the area's proximity to Manhattan.

“You can stand at the edge of the wetlands and see the New York City skyline,” she said.

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