Pictured Above: Save the Sound’s Long Island Natural Areas Manager Louise Harrison addressed a congressional subcommittee on March 7 |. Thomas Halaczinsky photo

The U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Natural Resources’s Subcommittee on Federal Lands heard testimony about the importance of preserving Plum Island as a National Monument on March 7 — the first time the proposal has been taken up for consideration by a congressional committee.

The future of the 840-acre island off of Orient Point, owned by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and home to a federal animal disease research laboratory since the 1950s, has been uncertain since Congress voted in 2013 to sell the island and transfer the work of the research lab to a new facility in Manhattan, Kansas. 

The 2021 Consolidated Appropriations Act, signed in December of 2020, blocked the sale and instead directed DHS to offer the island to other federal agencies, and if those agencies declined to manage the island, to offer it to a state or local government agency.

East End Congressman Nick LaLota’s first bill after entering the House of Representatives last year, H.R. 1584, introduced in March of 2023, would direct Congress to designate the island a National Monument “for the purpose of ecological conservation, historical preservation, and the discovery and celebration of our shared cultural heritage.” 

That status, which would protect the island from development, can be conferred by either Congress or the President of the United States under the 1906 Antiquities Act. 

The bill would also grant the Secretary of the Interior jurisdiction to establish agreements with federal departments and agencies and to direct the preparation of a management plan for the island within three years.

Members of the Preserve Plum Island commission with Congressman LaLota at Orient Point overlooking Plum Island in August of 2023. |. Office of Congressman Nick LaLota photo

The Preserve Plum Island Coalition of environmental and community groups has been advocating for a National Monument Status since 2022. Nearly 2,200 supporters, including Senators Schumer, Blumenthal, Murphy, and Gillibrand; the full Long Island delegation to the New York State Legislature; the 18-member Suffolk County Legislature and every local public official on the East End have sent letters to the White House requesting the status for the island.

While the President could unilaterally designate the island a National Monument, members of the House Subcommittee seemed generally supportive of Mr. LaLota’s legislation at the March 7 hearing, though a representative from the National Parks Service expressed reservations about potential hazards remaining on the island, which is being cleaned up by DHS in a process being monitored by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation.

Louise Harrison, the Long Island Natural Areas Manager for Save The Sound, which is coordinating the Preserve Plum Island Coalition, gave testimony to the subcommittee on behalf of the preservation effort.

“A National Monument could return sustainable access to the people, and tell the story of unique American landscapes. It’s a key component of one of the last wild ecosystems, where components of two national estuaries mix,” Ms. Harrison told the subcommittee, adding that the island is “the biological lynchpin of a beautiful chain of islands between three states — New York, Connecticut and Rhode Island,” which is “in the view of boaters, fishers and interstate ferry travelers, who wonder about it and wait for a chance to get closer to this part of American history.”

“Most access to this island has been restricted. We want to reverse this inequity,” she said, adding that Fort Terry, a Coast Artillery post established on the island after the Spanish-American War, used as an anti-submarine base during World War II is already on the National Register of Historic Places, and the National Fish and Wildlife Service considers the area to be a “significant coastal habitat.”

“The Montaukett Indian Nation tells us this is an important part of their historical territory, where they would practice cultural traditions and visit sacred sites,” she added.

“The Preserve Plum Island Coalition believe it should be held in public trust,” she said of the island. “A designation would allow for management planning to begin now.”

Subcommittee Chairman Rep. Tom Tiffany said there is “strong local support for conserving the unique and at times mysterious history of Plum Island,” but asked witness Mike Reynolds, the outgoing Deputy Director of the National Parks Service, if he believed it would be feasible for his agency to manage the island as a National Monument.

Mr. Reynolds said his office “is very supportive” of the proposal but has “a ton of questions.”

“Congress, of course, can designate National Park units at any time,” he said. “It’s a complex place… We have a number of questions about making the island safe for visitor use. There are a lot of concerns. The department would still like to work with everybody involved…. We do support the idea that this island is a very special place.”

Mr. Reynolds said, in particular that he would like to see a Special Resource Study conducted, to “make sure we have enough information to understand the national and cultural resources.” He added that he “wouldn’t know how to answer” questions from constituents about how long such a study would take.

Special Resource Studies evaluate whether a property meets the requirements of the National Park System by possessing nationally significant resources and being a suitable and feasible addition to the system, and whether they require direct management by the National Parks Service “instead of alternative protection by other agencies or the private sector.”

Congressman Nick LaLota and Louise Harrison of Save the Sound at the hearing in Washington March 7. |. Petrina Engelke photo

Mr. LaLota and Ms. Harrison pointed out that numerous studies have already been conducted, including an ecological inventory of the island conducted by the New York National Heritage Program, a bird study by Audubon New York, a Historic Resources Inventory and studies done by the Department of Homeland Security in the process of decommissioning the island.

“I would be happy to provide a complete bibliography,” said Ms. Harrison. “I believe a Special Resource Study could begin now.”

Ms. Harrison said later that Mr. Reynolds had also suggested the agency could perform a “Reconnaissance Study, which could be a shorter process.

“That might be more appropriate in this case,” she said. “There are numerous studies that have already been produced and some that are underway that could give a boost to a Reconnaissance or a Special Resource Study.”

“I understand the National Parks Service has a variety of concerns regarding the history and the remediation… I encourage you to work with the bill sponsor to find a way to get this bill to a markup,” Congressman Joe Neguse, the Ranking Democratic Member of the Subcommittee on Federal Lands, told Mr. Reynolds. “I’ve never been to Plum Island, but it sounds like a place that we ought to be protecting.”

“It’s been my experience that unified bipartisan and community support on big ideas and big projects is hard to come by,” said Mr. LaLota at the hearing. “That’s not the case when it comes to preserving Plum Island. My district is totally united in support for preserving Plum Island. It’s one of the most frequent topics East End constituents raise to me.”

Ms. Harrison said that, while “there is a possibility of the President proclaiming Plum Island a National Monument, Congress could also do it, which would strengthen the President’s proclamation.”

“That would definitely codify it,” she said of congressional action, adding that the Preserve Plum Island Coalition (preserveplumisland.org) recently added a button to the homepage of its website where supporters can send letters to their members of Congress advocating for a National Monument, in addition to letters to the President. “We’re promoting both. We believe this can be done before the Department of Homeland Security leaves Plum Island.”

“What we heard were concerns about how to get the job done,” she said of the hearing. “As advocates, we know they’re capable of getting the job done, and as advocates, we’re keeping it in the public eye so they feel emboldened to take the next steps.”

Keep Independent News on the East End

The Beacon is able to provide all of our content online free of charge thanks to support from our readers. Be a vital part of keeping our community informed!

Beth Young
Beth Young is an award-winning local journalist who has been covering the East End since the 1990s. She began her career at the Sag Harbor Express and, after receiving her Masters from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, has reported for the Southampton Press, the East Hampton Press and the Times/Review Media Group. She founded the East End Beacon website in 2013, and a print edition in 2017. Beth was born and raised on the North Fork. In her spare time, she tinkers with bicycles, tries not to drown in the Peconic Bay and hopes to grow the perfect tomato. You can send her a message at editor@eastendbeacon.com

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Please prove you're human: