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The Record (Bergen County, NJ)

Mister Meadowland; Nature Specialist Retires After Three Decades

By Tina Traster

December 13, 1998 -- Ask Don Smith to talk about planned development in the Meadowlands and he responds with practiced bureaucratic positions. But mention that a 6-foot bird halted traffic on Route 80 near the Delaware Water Gap, and Smith, a strapping man who wears khakis and hiking boots, will tell you, sight unseen, that the bird is a great white egret.

And that's not all.

"Never get too close if they're hissing," he warns, his blue-violet eyes growing wider as he talks about a subject dear to his heart. "When they're scared, they go straight for the eyes." Said to be a modern-day Natty Bumppo, James Fenimore Cooper's literary frontiersman, Smith has been the Hackensack Meadowlands Development Commission's natural resource specialist for nearly three decades. He retired last week.

"He was the man for the job, "said Jane Kenny, the agency's chairwoman and commissioner of the state Department of Community Affairs. "He has intimate knowledge of the land. He spent his boyhood in the wilderness. He understands all creatures, the flora and fauna that inhabit one of the most densely populated and most degraded areas in New Jersey. His perspective is invaluable for balancing preservation and economic realities."

As natural resource specialist, and the only person who ever has held that position, Smith played more roles than Laurence Olivier.

Mainly, though, he was the man who helped catalog the region's wildlife and plant life, an important task for understanding how development would disrupt habitats.

Smith, who joined the agency in 1971, two years after its creation, played a leading role in closing many of the district's landfills. And he has been crucial in planning wetlands restoration.

The HMDC was established by the state in 1969 to oversee development in the 32-square-mile, 14-town Meadowlands district.

"I remember when I first heard about the HMDC, "Smith, 56, recalled." A flier came in the mail. I was highly skeptical. I figured the word 'development meant more development, and that meant the demise of an area I loved deeply."

Smith grew up in Little Ferry, the meadows his back yard. His father was a machinist for a greeting-card company, his mother a homemaker. Smith's playground was the great outdoors, a paradise he watched disappear as more landfills were allowed in the area.

He excelled in biology at Ridgefield Park High School, then worked for five years at the Bronx Zoo, where he bred rare aquatic birds even though he did not have a college degree.

It was Chet Mattson, now director of planning and economic development for Bergen County, who persuaded Smith to join the HMDC during its pioneering days. Mattson was the agency's chief of environmental programs and planning.

"I was his first boss at the agency, but it was always clear who was the boss, "Mattson quipped." My first day on the job, I drove around in the Meadowlands district. I wanted to know who in this area knew the wildlife and the ecology of the river. Whether I was in a bar, a gas station, or on the river, everybody said the same thing: His name is Don Smith and he lives on Marshall Street in Little Ferry."

Mattson turned up at Smith's door, and said, "I'm from the state; I'm here to help you."

Smith replied, "The hell you are."

Asked why he was willing to work for the government, Smith says he had become an activist, interested in closing landfills and saving the Saw Mill Wildlife marsh.

"I realized it was better to join ranks with people who could get things done," he recalls.

Through the years at the agency, Smith has sampled water by moonlight to check contamination levels. His field work helped dramatize the need for wastewater treatment plants, because industry three decades ago thought of the Hackensack River as a sewer. He steered the Meadow's Path project, a network of trails that will run the length of the district. He's especially proud of his role in jailing a man for polluting a creek.

Smith is a legend along the Hackensack River, where he runs pontoon tours for the public. As he floats through the Saw Mill Creek Wildlife Management Area, a 1,000-acre marsh preserve, at daybreak, the herons and egrets are atwitter. There, in the morning quiet, the shore birds begin feeding. The marsh starts to feel like a busy town square, with the daily chores under way.

It's hard to keep Smith away from the river.

On a steamy summer day in 1996, he was scheduled to escort a reporter down the river. Before he arrived for the early-morning journey, a car came tearing up the gravel driveway near the boatyard. A woman , his second wife, Joan, whom he married the night before, emerged from the car, arms flailing. "I can't believe he's doing this. We've got people in town and we're having a breakfast. Well, I guess he'll do what he wants."

Now, Smith and his wife, who is a wetlands specialist, are moving to Bleecker, N.Y., a small town in the Adirondack Mountains. The couple plan to raise endangered pheasants to release into the wild.

Asked how he feels about moving on, Smith, who has two grown sons, wavers.

"Let's put it this way: I've worked for government, but I've never been part of it. I've fought grudgingly half the time, but I can't really bend and mold. I didn't win all the battles, but I won most of them," he said.

And what gave him the power to persevere?

"I never thought about me; I thought about the meadows," he said.

"A place where I roamed as a boy. A place that formed my personality. A place that I got to protect throughout my career."

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