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‘Envision Plum Island’ report spurs renewed call for preservation

When volunteers conducted bird counts on Plum Island over the years, one of their many remarkable revelations was the abundance of birds on the 822-acre island east of Orient Point. 

In all, those who undertook the numerous bird counts found, the island is home to 227 species, nearly a quarter of all bird species in the United States and Canada stretching all the way to the Arctic.

A separate survey of marine habitats around the island, completed last September, added a great deal more to what is known about Plum Island’s extraordinary environment. 

“When you think of something that’s so small and yet it has such high diversity, you wonder why, and we’re beginning to learn that it’s a combination of many elements,” said Louise Harrison, New York natural areas coordinator for Save the Sound. “It’s the clean waters that are coming in from the Atlantic Ocean. It’s the estuarine waters leaving Long Island Sound and the Peconic Estuary and the mixing that goes on between the Peconic Estuary and Long Island Sound, the high oxygen level coming in from the Atlantic Ocean, and the lack of disturbance. 

“Most of Plum Island has been allowed to be without much disturbance for the last 70 years, ever since the Army left in the early 1950s. It’s a place where wildlife has returned, and the fact that it’s there in such diversity is fabulous,” she told The Suffolk Times in May.

Save the Sound and The Nature Conservancy have authored a report on the island and its future, called Envision Plum Island, which they unveiled at a virtual press conference on Wednesday that was attended — virtually speaking — by 100 individuals. 

Elected officials at all levels of government and two states coming together in a bipartisan effort should be a message to Washington that stopping the sale of this gem is a top priority

Scott Russell

The goal of the report, and the work of both groups over the past few years, is to get the federal government to stop its plans to auction off the island after the Plum Island Animal Disease Center moves to Manhattan, Kansas. 

“The island is extraordinary,” Ms. Harrison said after the press conference. “We want to do all that we can to see it stays the way it is.”

The U.S. Department of Agriculture came to the island in the early 1950s to conduct critically needed research into animal diseases that could wipe out entire species. Research into these diseases was developed at the research facility, which occupies the western-most end of the island. The vaccine for hoof and mouth disease — capable of wiping out cattle — was developed at the Plum Island facility by world-class veterinarians.

Prior to the research facility coming to the island, it was home to military posts and training facilities. Fort Terry was built on the island during the Spanish-American War in the late 19th century. The island’s strategic importance can be seen in the simple fact that it sits at the mouth to Long Island Sound. Forts were also built on Fishers Island and Great Gull Island.

Among the many stakeholders and officials who “attended” Wednesday’s press conference were both U.S. senators from Connecticut, Richard Blumenthal and Chris Murphy, along with 1st District congressman Lee Zeldin, who has been a vocal supporter of preservation. 

Both New York senators, Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand, praised the report as charting a path for the island’s preservation. In a statement, Mr. Zeldin said he was “honored” to serve with other state and regional political figures focused on the island’s preservation.

The federal government put the island up for auction more than a decade ago. The island is now under the Department of Homeland Security. Those who supported the sale said the proceeds would go to the new lab in Kansas, but that was later changed. The new lab is expected to open in 2023.

Southold Town has been adamantly opposed to the sale of the island and, in 2013, moved to create a zoning for the island that officials hoped would scare off any potential developers. The new zoning divided the island into a research district and a conservation district — all in an attempt to keep this largely untouched island as it is, forever.

A lion’s mane jelly off Plum Island, as shown in the report released in May. (Credit: InnerSpace Scientific Diving)

Supervisor Scott Russell, in an email Friday, said the preservation of the island is vitally important to the town, but also the entire region. 

“Over 100 people participated in the press conference, each deeply committed to the protection and preservation of Plum Island, which underscores how important this effort is,” he said. “Elected officials at all levels of government and two states coming together in a bipartisan effort should be a message to Washington that stopping the sale of this gem is a top priority. 

“Representative Lee Zeldin, who has been battling in the trenches with us from the beginning, has clearly gotten the attention of Congress. This plan, created with the leadership of our own Louise Harrison, envisions a future for Plum Island that is comprehensive, sweeping in its scope and, once implemented, will ensure our treasured asset will remain that way for generations.”

In a release, Envision Plum Island speaks of the island as home to “nationally significant natural and cultural resources, including lands traditionally used by Indigenous people.” Other rarities on the island are the decommissioned Army post, and 500 plant and animal species. The group said any sale to a developer would cause “irreversible harm to wildlife, including seals and endangered roseate terns, and threaten Native American artifacts and important, historical buildings.”

The Envision report speaks to creating sanctuaries for wildlife, preservation of Fort Terry and the historic Plum Island Lighthouse, along with research and educational facilities. 

“We believe there are some structures that are unique to America,” Ms. Harrison said.

What comes next?

Congress has suspended the marketing for the sale of the island until the end of September. But, if that is lifted, the federal government could once again resume advertising the island to potential buyers.

“We think congress should repeal the legislation that says the island should be put up for public sale,” Ms. Harrison said. “It could then be offered to other agencies or the states as park land. We would certainly favor that. But we have to get it off the auction block.”

As for island’s uniqueness, Southold Town historian Amy Folk summed it up this way: “Today it is one of the few areas left where one can truly see what Long Island used to look like before the immense development of the suburbs took over the length and breadth of Long Island.”