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Public TV Documentary Spotlights Rescue of New Jersey Wetlands

When Lynn Kosek Walker and Bob Szuter set out to document changes in local wetlands, the tides had begun to turn.

"We already saw that people were making a difference," said Ms. Walker, writer and co-producer of "Turning the Tide" for New Jersey's NJN Public Television. "We wanted to show that one person can make a difference."

The documentary, which was executive produced by Janice Selinger and originally broadcast in May, focuses on the continuing re-emergence of two urban wetlands in New Jersey: the Meadowlands, near Hackensack, and the Hamilton-Trenton Marsh.

"The Meadowlands was known as hell on earth," Ms. Walker said. "Wildlife was nonexistent, and the fumes! The smell was terrible."

The Hamilton-Trenton Marsh, just outside the capital city of Trenton, is smaller but possibly even more heavily polluted.

"We're losing so many of our wetlands to industry," Ms. Walker said, "but urban wetlands get hit the hardest, because they serve as dumping grounds. So many people equate wetlands with wastelands."

The importance of wetlands hit home for some Americans when Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005. "A lot of [the Louisiana] wetlands were already destroyed," Ms. Walker said, "so nothing could hold back the water."

But even after Katrina, wetlands remain a largely misunderstood and underappreciated resource nationwide, posing a challenge for anyone trying to educate an ambivalent public.

In New Jersey, the passage of state and federal environmental laws had already started to make a difference, and the producers at NJN wanted to let viewers know that a transformation was under way. They also wanted to highlight some of the people responsible for making it happen.

"The Meadowlands Commission [which produced the documentary with NJN] and other environmental groups had started working with local preservationists," Ms. Walker said. "Now what's happening is more and more people are becoming aware of what wetlands do for us."

Wetlands help with flooding, she said, because "they hold great quantities of water. They also act as filters to filter out pollutants. They give homes to wildlife and they're nurseries for young fish."

Scientists, wildlife advocates and environmentalists lent their stories to "Turning the Tide," and the documentary showcased New Jersey residents enjoying some of the newly restored marshlands, parts of which are open for canoe trips and hiking.

"People said, 'It's a dead zone, nothing's going to live here, give up on it,'" Ms. Walker said. "But if you can make inroads with legislation, and Clean Water Acts to enforce it, you can change people's attitudes. We wanted to tell people, 'We've made mistakes as a society, but it's still important to do the positive things that can make a difference.'"

Response to the documentary has been overwhelmingly positive, Ms. Walker said. But the biggest reward for raising awareness was the gradual re-emergence of flora and fauna in the area.

"When you see the wildlife coming back, you know you've made a difference," Ms. Walker said. "We've seen rare and endangered species -- maybe not endangered for the planet, but endangered for this area -- starting to come back to the Meadowlands. The osprey and the pied-billed grebe came back and started to nest again."

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