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The Record (Bergen County, NJ)

A Conservationist At Work; Trying to Save the Meadowlands

By Tina Traster

October 8, 1996 -- Bill Sheehan had an old score to settle, with himself.

The avid fisherman, who spent his youth angling in the Hackensack River and trapping in the Meadowlands, never became an Eagle Scout because he did not perform a community-service project.

"This was one of the biggest failures in my life," said Sheehan, a blue-eyed and burly man with white- and gold-flecked whiskers." I was 18, and I got into the music business. It took over my life, and there was no time for the Scouting world."

Thirty years later, "Captain Bill" Sheehan, 47, has found his community-service project.

A lifelong Secaucus resident who has been a taxi dispatcher for 20 years, Sheehan has become the unofficial guardian of the Hackensack estuary and the wetlands. He runs an ecological tour along the Hackensack River. He educates schoolchildren about conservation, and he vociferously fights development in the Meadowlands, lobbying legislators and local officials. He is among those battling plans by The Mills Corp. of Arlington, Va. to build a large mall in environmentally sensitive wetlands.

"My daughter is 21 years old, and so now I have more time," said the self-taught environmentalist who never went to college." Instead of going back to music, I went even further back to my Scout days. It's as though I was older in the Sixties, and I'm younger now. I understand the importance of the stuff that I left behind. The conservation ethic was so deeply ingrained in me, but I didn't realize it at the time."

There's little doubt that Sheehan's avocation is to protect and preserve the Meadowlands, and his work is not going unnoticed. The New Jersey Audubon Society recently named Sheehan Conservationist of the Year.

"He's an amazing man," said Richard Kane, director of conservation for the Audubon Society. Kane credits Sheehan with being one of the environmentalists who prodded the state to buy and preserve 186 acres of wetlands in Secaucus, including a tract targeted for a controversial 2,000-unit housing complex. The decision signals the demise of Hartz Mountain Industries decade-long effort to build a $375 million town-house community on the site.

"It's fair to say that things like this don't happen without local people like Bill Sheehan," Kane said.

Sheehan began volunteering for the New York/New Jersey Baykeeper, an environmental watchdog group, four years ago. Sheehan said he rediscovered his love for the Hackensack River when he escorted Kane down the waterway for a bird inventory.

"It gave me the opportunity to slow down and look at what I was ignoring," said Sheehan. "It made me remember all the things we used to do as boys. This was my playground, and I'd lost touch with it."

Sheehan was inspired. He founded the Hackensack Estuaries and River Tender Corp., a non-profit group dedicated to preserving and restoring the estuary. The group, based in Secaucus, arranges tours of the estuary and wetlands.

"I said, Here I am, 45 years old. I took out a calendar and realized I've got 25 more productive years. I reinvented myself."

The organization has grown to 75 volunteers, who pay $20 in annual dues. Sheehan publishes a quarterly newsletter, Heart-beat.

"Every time five people get on the river, they become advocates," Sheehan said recently, while plying the river in a pontoon boat." They realize it has fallen out of grace at the hands of humans. They are changed when they see this. They want to protect it."

Although Sheehan cruises the waters most days, spotting a gray egret or a blue-winged teal makes the captain gasp.

"I'm out here every day, but it still amazes me," said Sheehan, who has watched parts of the Hackensack, which is on the top 20 list of the nation's most endangered rivers, bounce back ecologically during the past decade.

Sheehan has escorted town, state, and environmental officials along the river and into narrow creeks to discuss the need for Meadowlands restoration to make homes for birds and fish. He also plies the river with ordinary people, hoping to give them a greater sense of proprietorship over a dwindling natural resource. There is a $15 suggested donation for the ride.

Rena Grasso, director of the School to Work program at Bergen County Technical High School, said school officials hope to incorporate river-based studies next semester. The idea developed after Grasso took Sheehan's tour.

"I cannot think of one subject that would not benefit from using the Hackensack River as a learning laboratory," Grasso said.

"Bill has taken the concept of river ownership and made it real," said Andrew J. Willner, the New York/New Jersey Baykeeper for the American Littoral Society. "Bill is a symbol for the river. He's a personality. He's the man on the job."

Sheehan has become the eyes and ears for the Baykeeper, his work an aquatic neighborhood watch.

By all accounts, Sheehan's energy and his commitment to preserving the rest of the Meadowlands are boundless but, some say, overly idealist.

Donald Smith, a natural resource specialist at the Hackensack Meadowlands Development Commission, said Sheehan doesn't appreciate why the commission supports the mall project, which calls for filling in nearly 200 acres of wetlands, but also includes plans by the developer to create or restore nearly 300 acres of wetlands on the site just north of the Meadowlands Sports Complex.

"The Mills project sits on... dried meadows, which habitually burn every spring," said Smith. "The area is diked. The tide cannot get in and out. It cannot support the functions that a wetland does for a river."

Sheehan agrees with that but would like to see the HMDC buy the wetlands, get rid of old tidal gates, and let the river restore itself.

"Nationwide, we are losing 300,000 acres of wetlands a year," Sheehan said. "If we have the capability in the Meadowlands to conserve and restore 7,000 acres, then we can make it work optimally as a fish and wildlife habitat.

Smith says the HMDC cannot afford to buy all the wetlands.

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