Ecology Along the Hackensack River
Van Buskirk Island is located in a transition zone between river and ocean environments. This zone is demarcated by the dam on the northern side of the island. Above the dam there is no tidal influence and the Hackensack River remains a fresh water environment. Below that dam the situation gradually changes into more brackish conditions towards the tidal estuary extending south to Newark Bay and the Meadowlands. Here at its northern most point you find little influence of salt water on flora and fauna. But, as you travel south, plant and animal communities change drastically as they are more exposed to brackish water.
A watershed is a region of land whose topography funnels and directs water to one location, as the Hackensack River and its tributaries funnel into Newark Bay. In a natural watershed over 90% of the rainfall collects above and below the soil surface before the majority of the precipitation begins its journey dowrn stream. Natural watersheds are uniquely connected landscapes whose boundaries may cross many artificially drawn state and municipal lines.
The Hackensack River Watershed is a landscape that has been manipulated for centuries, its processes dominated by the addition of four man-made dams. These structures impact the
dam-created and water reservoirs located in the river's upper reaches at the Oradell Reservoir, Lake Tappan, Lake DeForest, and Lake Lucille.
Human actions have also impacted the lower portions of the Hackensack River system. The Hackensack Meadowlands, now dominated by the Common Reed (Phragmites australis), was once an Atlantic White Cedar (Camaecyparis thyoides) swamp before the arrival of Dutch settlers in the 1600's. Using techniques from their home country, the Dutch channeled and drained the land while harvesting peat. This altered the natural ebb and flow of tidal influence forcing the salt water further upstream. The last surviving Atlantic White Cedar died in 1939 as a direct result of restricted fresh water flow down the Hackensack River caused by the damming of the Oradell reservoir.
About the Watershed
The Water Works complex was the collection and delivery point of the Hackensack River's precious natural resource, water. The watershed for the Hackensack Water Works extends from northern New Jersey to New York State, where its topography directs all draining water through the Hackensack River and ultimately to Newark Bay.
The Hackensack Riverkeeper and Bergen County Parks Department hope to install a new canoe launch at the Van Buskirk Island County Park. As the northern-most stop
of the Hackensack River Canoe Trail, the New Milford launch will be an ecological gateway to Bergen County's recreational waterways and historic trade routes.
At the time the Water Works opened, the Oradell, New Milford, and River Edge reaches of the river hosted numerous boating and canoe clubs. Boathouses dotted the shoreline. A century later, this 21st century canoe launch will once again reconnect boaters with this portion of the Hackensack River.
As the northern-most access point along the Hackensack River's tidal estuary, the New Milford location connects directly to eight County parks, the Hackensack Meadowlands Conservation and Wildlife Area, and the Atlantic Ocean through a series of canoe and boat launches.
The New Milford canoe launch will serve as the trail head for the collaborative effort between the Hackensack Riverkeeper and the National Parks Service in establishng a paddle trail using the Hackensack River as an ecological and recreational corridor, connecting the existing park system with water access points. This trail offers residents and eco-tourists the chance to experience the natural beauty of the Hackensack River, learn about what lives and grows in this river habitat, and explore the Hackensack Watershed.
Van Buskirk Island is part of the Hackensack River riparian zone. The building of the Water Works and the adjacent infrastructure has changed the natural conditions in the core of the island. Maintained grass areas and horticultural plants are dominant on both sides of Elm Street. The island's peripheries contain many densely vegetated areas which serve as wildlife habitat. There are fresh water wetlands and associated riparian zones along the river channel. Most of the trees along the river are native and their root systems help to stabilize the stream banks. The River Birch (Betula nigra), Sucamore (Platanus acerifotia), Basswood (Tihar americana) and American Elm (Umus americana), a few of the most common trees on the island, are great perches for birds hunting for fish in the river.
Heavy flows, high oxygen levels and a coarse sandy bottom in the intake basins provide good living conditions for fishes and other marine wildlife. Many fishes are stranded behind the dams at the northern tip of Van Buskirk Island, making a great foraging ground for birds such as the Black-Crowne Night-Heron (Nycticorax nycticorax.) Other wildlife on the island includes the Eastern Painted (Turtle Chrysemys p. picta) and the Little Brown Bat (Myotis lucifugus.)
The peninsula south of New Milford Avenue is an assemblage of native plants as well as some ornamental and naturalized non-natives, creating the character of a mature forest canopy. A similar forest covers the site of the former workers housing at the southern end of the property. Though the buildings are gone, the remaining ornamental plants such as Mock Orange (Philadelphus sp.) and the Doublefile Viburnum (Viburnum pilcatum) still tell the story of the gardens around former homes. And some of the ornamental plants are doing very well; a Tulip Tree (Liriodendron tulipfera) has produced a thicket of seedlings and shoots, and the ground cover Pachysandra terrminalis is spreading.
Watershed Map: United Water
Hackensack Regional Diagram: Rutgers
Canoe Launch Diagram: Rutgers
Historic Photo (Canoe): Bergen County (Lantern Plates D)
Heron: William Lynch - Rutgers
Turtle: James Petranka-University of North Carolina at Ashville
Bat: Timothy Carter - Ball State University
Upstream Hackensack River: Rutgers (Marker Number 3.)