Paddlers push to preserve Plum Island with kayaking event

On your mark, get set, paddle!

More than 75 kayakers plan to drop their boats in the waters off Orient Beach State Park Saturday, Aug. 18, for a display of activism. The feat of endurance will see paddlers from both New York and Connecticut taking a stand against the commercial sale and development of Plum Island. 

The first-of-its-kind event will bring Plum Island conservation enthusiasts together with the Long Island Paddlers kayaking group. They hope to raise funds to support the Save the Sound organization’s efforts to lead a visioning process for the future use of Plum Island.

The idea for the event came after Louise Harrison, Save the Sound’s New York natural areas coordinator, gave a presentation about Plum Island at a Long Island Paddlers meeting in 2017. “The more people learn about Plum Island, the more they want to save it,” Ms. Harrison said. “The idea just hatched from there.”

Steve Berner, president of the Long Island Paddlers, said his group is especially interested in the conservation effort. “Of course, as kayakers, we find islands very interesting destinations anyway. There’s something exciting about paddling from one land mass to another,” he said.

Mr. Berner leads a group trip to Orient Beach State Park every year, usually with 40 or 45 other members. “It’s one of the top five spots to paddle on Long Island. This year, we have double that number because so many people care about saving Plum Island,” he said.

Rain or shine, participants will gather at 10 a.m. Saturday at the state park’s kayak access point. After a few opening remarks, kayakers will venture into Little Bay and Hallocks Bay before returning for a beach barbecue.

Currently owned by the federal government and home to the Plum Island Animal Disease Center, the island’s future remains uncertain. Federal officials broke ground in 2015 on a new facility in Manhattan, Kan., that will replace operations on Plum Island.

The 840-acre island was originally slated to be sold by the government to the highest bidder, but environmentalists and elected officials have both advocated for its preservation.

In 2016, a coalition including Save the Sound, Peconic Baykeeper, Group for the East End and others, filed a lawsuit against the U.S. General Services Administration and the Department of Homeland Security, alleging that the federal government violated environmental laws by failing to consider conservation as an alternative to sale. In January, a federal judge denied the defendants’ motion to dismiss the case.

Last year, the U.S. House of Representatives passed legislation sponsored by Congressman Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley) to block the sale. To date, the U.S. Senate has not followed suit.

As the lawsuit progresses, groups in the Preserve Plum Island Coalition are working on a more concrete vision for the island’s future.

“Everyone seems to agree that we want to save Plum Island,” Ms. Harrison said. “But [leaders] want to see a clearer vision of the activities that we’d like to see there and kinds of reuses we’d support.”

Save the Sound hopes to raise enough to hire a consulting firm who will help it develop a clearer concept for Plum Island’s future. “If we can pull together some really specific concepts, it’ll help our chances of saving the island,” she said.

Ms. Harrison said she got involved with the preservation effort because it would be a shame “to trade an amazing biological, ecological and historical resource. [Plum Island] is a national asset that belongs to all Americans. [The federal government] should not be selling it out from under us.”

Personally, she said, she’d like to see the island’s history and wildlife preserved, perhaps joining the ranks of a national or state park system. “And frankly, we want jobs to stay on Plum Island. [The laboratory] is an amazing, state-of-the-art building that should be reused,” she added.

Ms. Harrison said Save the Sound would be working with a consultant who has experience transferring federal properties, like military bases, into public uses, but declined to give more details until their contract is finalized.

Interested in paddling or just helping the cause? Sign up or donate at bit.ly/paddleforplum.

[email protected]

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