Save the Sound and The Nature Conservancy have launched a multi-month process to develop a vision for the future of Plum Island.
The groups held their first workshop, titled “Envision Plum Island,” with more than 50 stakeholders, at Cornell Cooperative Extension of Suffolk County’s headquarters in Riverhead Nov. 16. On hand were elected and agency officials from local, tribal, state, and federal governments, along with representatives from academia, cultural institutions, historic preservation organizations, and the business sector, as well as ecological, parks management, and advocacy and civic organizations.
The federally owned 840-acre island, just off the coast of Orient within the boundaries of Southold Town, is slated to be sold at auction after the federal animal disease research laboratory there moves to Kansas between 2022 and 2023.
At the workshop, Southold Town Supervisor Scott Russell addressed the crowd, emphasizing the importance of the town’s zoning regulations for Plum Island, which would go into effect should the island be sold to a private entity. The restrictions limit the island’s uses to research and conservation.
Ruth Ann Bramson, co-author of “An Island Unto Itself—The Remarkable History of Plum Island, New York,” discussed the cultural and historical resources on the island, while other attendees discussed the conversion of former military properties into refuges and open space.
“From the Town of Southold’s forward-thinking zoning of Plum Island for research and conservation to our discussions about the island’s future with hundreds of people all over the region, including our representatives in Congress, it became abundantly clear to us in the Preserve Plum Island Coalition that we need a detailed plan that addresses the whole island, said Louise Harrison, New York natural areas coordinator for Save the Sound. “By identifying beneficial outcomes through a careful planning process, we will be able to compile a wide range of ideas for the future of Plum Island. We are gratified by the great response from such a diverse group of people, all eager to work together for the benefit of this precious natural, cultural, and historic resource.”
The Nature Conservancy and Save the Sound are planning future meetings, and will be looking to have the public weigh in with their vision for Plum Island’s future.
Consulting firm Marstel-Day has been hired to help develop alternative scenarios for the future of the island, with the goals of permanent conservation, habitat protection, and integrated compatible reuse of the Plum Island’s existing research infrastructure to maintain skilled jobs.
“Plum Island offers unique habitat and important refuge for wildlife, and it has all the makings of a first-rate, low-impact, outdoor experience for visitors—who in turn will contribute to the local and regional economy,” said Marstel-Day President and CEO Rebecca R. Rubin. “Ecological preservation of the majority of the island, coupled with a high-quality experience for visitors, is clearly its highest and best use. We look forward to guiding a broad range of regional conservation, cultural, government, and business interests through a process to identify pathways to a future that protects Plum Island’s unique environmental and historic riches.”
Plum Island provides habitat for several federally endangered and threatened species of flora and fauna, including piping plover. The waters surrounding the island provide fish for endangered roseate terns and are home to federally-listed marine species such as Atlantic hawksbill sea turtles, Kemps Ridley sea turtles, and Atlantic sturgeon. Seals also haul out on its rocks in one of the largest such assemblages in southern New England.
Several legislative moves are afoot to ensure the preservation of the island.
In 2017, the U.S. House of Representatives unanimously passed The Plum Island Preservation Act (H.R. 2182), which would require the Government Accountability Office (GAO) to submit to Congress a report on alternatives for the final disposition of Plum Island, New York, including transfer to another government or nonprofit entity for education, research, or conservation purposes. Connecticut’s and New York’s senators have introduced S. 1737, The Plum Island Conservation Act, which would repeal the requirement directing the Administrator of General Services to sell the island.
There are also two appropriations bills in play for 2019: one would defund the General Services Administration from marketing or sales activities concerning the island, and the other would reinstate the normal land disposal process that were in place before the 2008 appropriations act that required GSA to sell the island at public auction, which GSA now estimates will take place “no sooner than 2023.”
A short list of potential scenarios for the island will be developed by the Envision Plum Island group in the spring of 2019, which will be compiled into a draft report that will be made available for public comment. A final report is expected in summer or fall 2019.
“Geological processes over thousands of years produced Plum Island and its remarkable biodiversity,” said The Nature Conservancy Long Island Chapter Executive Director Nancy Kelley. “We are delighted that so many people want to spend a few months carefully considering what is the best use of the island for our region and the best way to bring that about.”
Support for the Plum Island visioning process comes in part from the John T. and Jane A. Wiederhold Foundation, Robert F. Schumann Foundation, and The Kitchings Family Foundation.