Editor’s Note, Dec. 25: President Donald Trump has threatened to veto and has not yet signed this bill, though he had been expected to sign the bill when this article was published Dec. 22.

Original Story Follows:

The long-dreaded federal auction of Plum Island has likely been cancelled with the approval by the U.S. Congress Monday night of the 2021 federal spending bill.

The 822-acre federally owned island off Orient Point has long been home to the Plum Island Animal Disease Center, which is being replaced by a new facility in Manhattan, Kansas, which is expected to be fully operational by 2022.

Laws passed by the federal government in 2008 and 2012 had mandated Plum Island be sold at public auction to the highest bidder, and New York and Connecticut lawmakers have been working since to reverse that order. The language in the federal spending bill, championed by Senators Chuck Schumer and Chris Murphy and Congressman Lee Zeldin, repeals both the 2008 and 2012 laws.

The legislation also provides $18.9 million for decommissioning and cleanup of the island.

The Plum Island lighthouse

The island is within the boundaries of Southold Town, which in 2013 enacted the first-ever zoning there, limiting the uses of the island to a 640-acre conservation district and a research facility on the land currently used by the animal research lab. The town also voted this year to zone the Plum Island Ferry terminal property in Orient to ensure it remains a ferry terminal.

Both the ferry terminal property and the island are considered by the federal government as one property to be ‘disposed of’ together.

The federal government can now follow its normal process for “disposing” of federal property, allowing the island to be transferred to another federal agency, state or other body.

That process may take several years, according to Save the Sound, a Connecticut-based non-profit that has spearheaded the Preserve Plum Island Coalition.

“It is rare in conservation to get a second chance. All too often, a species becomes irretrievably lost to extinction or a forest is irreparably destroyed by development. But Congress, through repeal of the mandate directing the sale of Plum Island, is giving the island a second chance,” said John Turner, spokesperson for the Preserve Plum Island Coalition, in a statement Monday afternoon. “But this second chance is really a first step. The Coalition calls on all those who care about Plum Island to stand by as we look to the next steps in keeping it forever in public ownership.”

“Our longtime push to save Plum Island from some ‘high bidder’ or anyone else who might neglect its natural resources, environmental value, our local stakeholders and concerned communities is now realized—Plum Island is saved and its sale is finally off the table,” said U.S. Senate Minority Leader  Chuck Schumer of New York. “It would have been a grave mistake to sell and develop Plum Island’s 840 acres of habitat, which is home to many endangered species. That’s why preventing the unnecessary sale requirement was a top priority of these negotiations. Now the people of Long Island will have their say in its future—and rightfully so.” 

The Preserve Plum Island Coalition (PPIC), an alliance of 116 organizations across New York, Connecticut, and Rhode Island, has been fighting to save the island’s rare habitats and cultural resources for a decade.

Artist Scott Bluedorn's cover for the Envision Plum Island report.
East End artist Scott Bluedorn’s cover for the Envision Plum Island report.

After two years of brainstorming and consensus-building guided by The Nature Conservancy, the Coalition released a report called Envision Plum Island this summer, which includes plans for a massive nature preserve and the preservation of a historic fort, lighthouse and research facilities on the island.

Members of The Nature Conservancy and Save the Sound then briefed Congress on the visioning document.

The starting point for implementing that vision is identifying an appropriate owner to ensure the island is conserved, according to Save the Sound.

“We’re closer than we’ve ever been to saving Plum Island,” said Curt Johnson, president of Save the Sound, which coordinates the Preserve Plum Island Coalition. “Senator Schumer’s negotiating power, Senators Murphy and Blumenthal’s networking, and the leadership of Congressmembers Zeldin, DeLauro, Courtney, and Lowey—along with unwavering support from the entire Long Island Sound Congressional delegation—have brought us this far. With the passage and signature of this bill, the normal process for dealing with federally-owned property will be re-opened. A path to permanent conservation is within our sights and Save the Sound will be there every step of that path.”

“Plum Island is historically Algonquin territory that became home to a 19th century lighthouse and Army post commissioned in 1897. Since the 1950s, it’s been the site of a federal laboratory, conducting advanced research on contagious animal diseases, which has helped to protect the nation’s agriculture. The Plum Island Animal Disease Center is slated to move to Kansas in 2023, which is why the island’s future has been uncertain,” according to a celebratory statement from The Nature Conservancy.

The island’s beach and coastal areas have enjoyed unusual protection from human and vehicular traffic in the last 70 years and, in the process, have becomes oases for endangered and rare species of plants and animals such as piping plovers, which nest there, and roseate terns, which breed in large numbers on nearby Great Gull Island and forage in Plum Island waters,” they added. “Some 227 bird species have been counted on Plum Island, and its waters include one of the few remaining seagrass meadows in Long Island Sound. It’s also the largest seal haul-out area in southern New England, where the rocky coast hosts several hundred grey and harbor seals each winter.”

“Plum Island is an ecological treasure, and the historic gateway to the Peconic Estuary, and because of the dedicated work of our elected leaders in Connecticut and New York, this magnificent environmental asset is finally being pulled off the market for a sale to the highest bidder,” said Group for the East End President Bob DeLuca. “The preservation of Plum Island has been eastern Long Island’s largest single conservation priority for over a decade, and today we are one step closer to that ambitious and important goal.”

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

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