Vision Takes Shape for Plum Island’s Future

Pictured Above: Artist Scott Bluedorn’s cover for the Envision Plum Island report.

Environmental groups pushing for the preservation of Plum Island have presented a unified vision for the future of the 822-acre federally owned island off the tip of the North Fork that includes a massive nature preserve and the preservation of a historic fort, lighthouse and research facilities on the island.

Since 1954, the island has been the site of the Plum Island Animal Disease Center, whose operations are slated to be moved to a new animal disease research center in Manhattan, Kansas by 2023.

A 2008 federal law mandates the federal government auction off Plum Island, but 110 environmental groups banded together as the Preserve Plum Island Coalition, beginning just after the auction was announced, to preserve the island, which is mostly wild except for the fort and the research center. Their goal is to ensure the island ends up in the hands of either another government agency or a non-profit intent on preserving the current use of the island.

On July 22, after two years of brainstorming and building consensus, the Preserve Plum Island Coalition unveiled its “Envision Plum Island” report, a 72-page document outlining a future for the island that foresees it becoming part of the New York State park system, including a 640-acre preserve, 125-acre academic research complex and a small museum and visitor’s center at the Plum Island Ferry Dock in Orient “That highlights the island’s Native American, cultural, scientific, military, and natural heritage.”

A ferry would take both researchers and visitors to the island from the existing ferry dock.

The report was drafted at the request of the U.S. Congress, which is considering alternatives to auctioning off the island, after congressional staffers asked the environmentalists to consider the question “What do you see instead?”

A map of the group’s vision concept for the island.

The report also calls for the preservation of Fort Terry, established in 1897 as part of a series of coastline armaments at the outset of the Spanish-American War, potentially using the fort’s guardhouse as a classroom and dormitory, and for the reuse of the Plum Island Lighthouse, an historic stone lighthouse built in 1869, for cultural and arts purposes, including possibly as a bed and breakfast.

The report suggests New York State’s Empire Development Corporation be asked to help establish new uses for the lab, serving “as a center for innovation, conservation, and interpretation.”

It noted that the Long Island Association has made the beneficial reuse of Plum Island one of its 2020 priorities, to “support continued state funding for the creation of a Research Corridor from Brookhaven National Laboratory to the New York Genome Center in Manhattan and expand the corridor east to include research activities on Plum Island.”

The report envisions encouraging sustainable access to the natural areas of the island, with a trail network designed to encourage visitors to respect its wild interior, and for the establishment of a Friends of Plum Island-type organization that would encourage public participation in the maintenance of the wild areas.

At a Zoom virtual press conference announcing the release of the report July 22, Louise Harrison, New York Natural Areas Coordinator for Save the Sound, a Connecticut-based environmental organization that spearheaded the Preserve Plum Island Coalition, said it is important that people can visit the island, so they can understand the importance of preserving it.

“There’s a lot yet to be learned about Plum Island. To take the best care of it, we need to be able to go there and understand it,” she said. “Some parts of the island are very sensitive and would only be accessed by researchers and students.”

The island has long been seen by the public as a secretive place — access has been limited to the staff of the animal disease research laboratory to prevent the spread of disease, which has led to numerous conspiracy theories about the work being done there. But that lack of access has also had the side effect of keeping the island very much as it was when the laboratory was established 66 years ago.

Plum Island
The Plum Island lighthouse, which is slated to be restored.

Marian Lindberg of The Nature Conservancy’s New York chapter, which was charged with convening the Envision Plum Island workshops over the past two years and drafting the report, said historical preservation on the island is also crucial.

“I would like to stress how important Fort Terry is,” she said. “There are many intact buildings, along with the parade grounds. It’s perhaps the most intact remnant of Long Island’s seacoast fortifications. Many researchers very excited about better access to these resources. With proper curatorial help, it could be an amazing place for people to come to.”

Efforts to keep the federal government from selling the island have been underway now for nearly a decade, with bills removing the language ordering the auction of the island from the original 2008 bill repeatedly passing the U.S. House of Representatives.

Congress last year blocked the federal General Services Administration from marketing the island until this September.

The second half of the 2021 appropriations package due for votes before Congress next week include a provision to repeal the sale of the island, said The Nature Conservancy’s policy advisor, Greg Jacob, at the July 22 press conference.

Mr. Jacob added that two stand-alone bills repealing the sale, HR 1578 and S 519, are also in committee awaiting co-sponsors.

“This year and last year are the closest we’ve come to getting language passed” to preserve the island, he said. “Where the rubber meets the road will be in the Senate.”

Mr. Jacob urged members of the public to visit the Preserve Plum Island website, where they can learn more about sending letters to their members of Congress about supporting the bill, and also on sending letters to New York Governor Andrew Cuomo asking New York State to take the lead in preserving the island should the federal government be willing to transfer the property to the state.

The mission to preserve the island is supported by a bipartisan and bi-state cross section of Senators and members of Congress from New York and Connecticut, including Senators Richard Blumenthal and Chris Murphy of Connecticut and Senators Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand and Congressman Lee Zeldin in New York.

Mr. Zeldin said at the press conference that the House of Representatives has already passed five bills regarding the preservation of Plum Island, including one that provides $1.5 million to fix up the lighthouse.

Mr. Blumenthal, who said the Senate requested the Envision Plum Island report, said it was “not only inspiring but powerful.”

He added that, if Plum Island is preserved, it will be “due entirely to citizen activism. That’s true of every environmental fight.”

“I’m determined to prevent Plum Island from being sold to highest bidder,” he added.

The full Envision Plum Island report is online here.

Beth Young

Beth Young has been covering the East End since the 1990s. In her spare time, she runs around the block, 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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