Congressman Zeldin, area officials and preservation groups hail the saving of Plum Island

A jubilant Congressman Lee Zeldin joined with environmental groups and elected officials Tuesday to celebrate the federal government removing the ”for sale sign” from the historic and ecological marvel that is Plum Island.

Hosted on a Zoom call by Mr. Zeldin (R-Shirley), the leaders of several key environmental groups listened as the congressman joyously detailed how he worked with a key U.S. Senator, Ron Johnson (R-Wisconsin) to get the Department of Homeland Security to agree that the island should not be sold to the highest bidder — an action that, had it happened, could have  opened the island for development.

In 2008, to the shock of Southold Town officials, the department put the island up for sale as part of an effort to relocate the animal research facility on the island to Manhattan, Kansas, with the sale of the island helping pay for the costs of a new laboratory.

The 12-year effort to save the 830-acre island involved groups such as Save the Sound, The Nature Conservancy, the Plum Island Coalition, and the Group for the East End, to name just a few. The leaders of these groups participated in the Zoom call.

Also critical to getting the preservation effort over the finish line was the administration of Southold Supervisor Scott Russell, and, when he served on the town board, the efforts of County Legis. Al Krupski (D-Cutchogue) to rezone the island as a way to hamstring any development of the island if the sale went through.

In talking about this 12-year effort, Mr. Zeldin explained how his wife, Diana, approached Sen. Johnson at a White House event to advocate for his help in getting the Department of Homeland Security to put a halt to the sale of the island.

“A year ago at the White House,” Mr. Zeldin said, “my wife went up to Senator Johnson in the coat line and harassed him about Plum Island,”

As several speakers said, these efforts, coupled with the persistent advocacy of Southold Town under Mr. Russell, caused Homeland Security to agree to withdraw the island from the auction block.

The removal, as well as funding for any cleanup needed on the island and several other environmental projects in the region, was approved last week by the U.S. Senate as part of a COVID-19 relief package and a $1.4 trillion spending bill. The bill was signed over the weekend by President Trump.

Now, the speakers said, the environmental groups will work with both the federal and state government, as well as private groups, to map out the island’s future as both a nature preserve and bird sanctuary, but also, on its western end, some sort of research or educational facility.

Both Mr. Russell and Mr. Krupski thanked the congressman for his tenacity to remove the ‘for sale sign.’ Mr. Russell pointed out that the Town Board changing the zoning on the island “helped if it were sold because it would reduce its value as a development.”

That zone change, Mr. Krupski explained, protected approximately 700 acres of the island. The island “is a unique jewel,” he said, that sits prominently in Long Island Sound.

Riverhead Supervisor Yvette Aguiar, when she came on the Zoom call, said of the island, “Some things cannot be sold to the highest bidder.”

Her comment summed up what many of the speakers were also saying.

The island is home to very significant cultural resources in addition to its natural wonders, which comprise more than 500 plant and animal species. The island was used by the Native people who lived here for thousands of years before Europeans arrived.

A brief list of the island’s wonders includes 228 species of birds, representing 25% of all bird species known to North America north of Mexico; the remains of Fort Terry, once a coastal defense facility; and 96 acres of freshwater wetlands.