08/22/13 12:00pm
08/22/2013 12:00 PM

MUSEUM OF NATURAL HISTORY COURTESY PHOTO | A mammoth skull on display at the Museum of Natural History in New York City.

The Southold Historical Society is disputing the federal government’s claim that woolly mammoth bones were once discovered on Plum Island.

The finding was mentioned in one sentence of the 500-page Final Environmental Impact Statement for the island, released this past October by the General Services Administration.

When questioned by a reporter about the discovery, a GSA spokesperson cited an 1879 article published in The Long Islander newspaper of Huntington as the basis for the claim. The article announced the discovery of a woolly mammoth skull on the island, indicating that it could contain other prehistoric remains dating as far back as the Paleo-Indian era.

But Southold Historical Society director Geoffrey Fleming said several references in the article lead his organization to believe the discovery was made on Plum Island, Mass.

“As soon as we read the [Long Islander] article we realized it wasn’t from here,” he said. “It was very clear from the locations being discussed, like the life saving station, which never existed on Plum Island [New York].”

Mr. Fleming also said a reference to “Brothers Beach” and a captain named in the article further indicate that the article was about the island in Massachusetts, though the piece does not specifically mention the state in which the discovery was made.

The historical society is currently researching Plum Island for a book it plans to release later this year.

Environmental groups pushing for the preservation of Plum Island have said the FEIS is lacking critical information required to assess various potential impacts associated with the property’s anticipated sale, and they’ve called for additional studies.

“Regardless of whether there are woolly mammoth bones on Plum Island you would expect the federal government would want to know what is out there in terms of archeology and biology,” Randy Parsons, policy advisor for The Nature Conservancy of Long Island, told the Suffolk Times earlier this month. “It points to a weakness in the way the island is run by the federal government.”

New York senators Kirsten Gillibrand and Charles Schumer and Congressman Tim Bishop have also joined in pointing out flaws in the environmental study.

The three elected officials outlined eight areas in need of additional study in a letter sent to the GSA last Friday. Soil and groundwater contamination, an inventory of solid waste sites and an assessment of the island’s existing sewage treatment structure were all examples listed in the letter.

“In order to best plan for its future and to prevent a rush to mistakenly move it to an unwise and unwarranted sale, we need a top-to-bottom environmental review of Plum Island, especially in light of the scientific research conducted at Plum Island,” Mr. Schumer said in a prepared statement.

Despite the “outstanding issues” detailed in the letter, the GSA plans to move forward with the sale without any additional testing, according to GSA public affairs officer Patrick Sclafani, who added that a note may still be added to correct the location of the mammoth bone discovery.

“The federal government is required by law to sell Plum Island,” reads a prepared statement from the GSA. “An Environmental Impact Statement prepared over a two-year time frame takes into account hundreds of comments from the public and analyzes the potential impacts of the sale of Plum Island on human health and the environment.GSA and DHS will continue to work closely with EPA, congressional and local officials to ensure all environmental concerns are reviewed and considered.” Once the property is sold, state and local regulatory agencies will have the authority to conduct additional reviews of the island, according to the statement.

The 840-acre island is home to the Plum Island Animal Disease Center, which is expected to be shut down and replaced by a new $1 billion animal disease research facility in Manhattan, Kan. Should the lab close, the GSA hopes to sell the property to a private developer for possible construction of up to 500 homes, according to the FEIS.

Since the island is federally owned, it is not currently subject to local zoning regulations. If it were sold, Southold Town would have jurisdiction over the property, which has prompted local officials to create new zoning categories for the island. The zoning is a precautionary measure aimed at preventing commercial development if the island is sold. It proposes two separate zones reflecting current uses as a research center and considerable open space.

The Southold Town Board is expected vote on the proposed zoning during its meeting Tuesday, Aug. 27.

cmurray@timesreview.com 

08/08/13 12:00pm
08/08/2013 12:00 PM
According to a July 11, 1879 newspaper report, the mammoth bones were discovered near Plum Island's western end (top).

FILE PHOTO | According to a July 11, 1879 newspaper report, the mammoth skull and bones were discovered near Plum Island’s western end (top).

The contents of a tiny brief published in a weekly newspaper more than 130 years ago has archaeologists and environmentalists calling for a closer look beneath the surface of Plum Island.

The article, published in a July 1879 issue of The Long Islander newspaper of Huntington, announced the discovery of a woolly mammoth skeleton on the island, indicating that it could contain other prehistoric remains dating as far back as the Paleo-Indian era.

The 19th-century discovery came to the attention of local environmentalists only recently, when they noticed one particular sentence in a 500-page draft environmental impact study of the island, released by the federal General Services Administration this past October.

That sentence reads: “The discovery of a mammoth skeleton on the west side of Plum Island suggests that the island could contain prehistoric remains.”

“This may be one of the most remarkable statements about the possible presence of archeological remains that I have personally encountered over the last 20 years of reviewing development proposals,” said Bob DeLuca, president and CEO of Group for the East End.

The mammoth skeleton, which archaeologists say would have to be more than 10,000 years old, was found in July 1879 beneath a 50-foot sand dune that extended 150 feet along an area known as Brother’s Beach, near the existing light station on the west end of the island, according to GSA public affairs officer Patrick Sclafani.

The bones were revealed by wind and erosion and unearthed by a group of men who spotted them, according to the Long Islander article.

The amateur excavation produced a mammoth skull and over seven feet of backbone. At least one leg of the skeleton was also present, the article reported.

The skull was described in the article as “like that of an elephant,” which means it was likely the skull of a mammoth, Mr. Sclafani said.

The bones were moved to the light station, but the article noted that they were in very poor condition.

“From the condition of the bones, they must have been covered for ages, as they were ready to crumble and it was with difficulty that they could be handled so as to take them to the station without falling to pieces,” the article stated.

The GSA has no record of what became of the skeleton, Mr. Sclafani said.

If mammoth bones were, in fact, found on Plum Island, it would be historic, said Dr. Gaynell Stone, director of the Suffolk County Archaeological Association, adding that she had no prior knowledge of the discovery of any mammoth bones on the North Fork east of Riverhead.

According to the New York State Museum in Albany, the most recent discovery of a woolly mammoth in the state occurred in 1934, when the Randolph mammoth, said to be about 12,000 years old, was found during the expansion of a fish hatchery western New York. To date, these remains, now in the museum’s collection, represent the most complete woolly mammoth skeleton found in the state.

An archeology book published by the museum lists all mammoth discoveries made statewide prior to 1902. The only listing for Suffolk County was “more than one half of a lower jaw with teeth,” discovered between tides in Riverhead in 1823.

Other area archeologists said the DEIS was the first time they’d heard of the Plum Island discovery.

“I asked around a bit and no one else seems to be aware of its existence or history,” said archeology professor David Bernstein of Stony Brook University.

Environmental groups pushing for the preservation of Plum Island said this revelation is another reason the impact statement is lacking in critical information required to assess the impact of selling Plum Island.

The 840-acre island is home to the Plum Island lab, which is expected to be shut down and replaced by a new $1 billion animal disease research facility in Manhattan, Kan. Should the lab close, the GSA hopes to sell the property to a private developer for possible construction of up to 500 homes.

Since the island is federally owned, it is not currently subject to local zoning regulations. If it were sold, the island would fall under Southold Town jurisdiction, which has prompted local officials to create new zoning categories for the island. The zoning is a precautionary measure aimed at preventing the construction of condominiums, large houses or even a casino if the island is sold. It proposes three separate zones reflecting current uses as a research center with its own harbor and considerable open space.

However, the zoning may not help protect the prehistoric significance of the island.

In the Final Environmental Impact Study the government has marked several areas Prehistoric High Probability Zones, which might suggest that human remains of hunters that tracked the mammoths could also be buried on the island.

The Archaeological Resources Predictive Model provided in the FEIS indicates that prehistoric remains would most likely be found be at the west edge of Plum Island, adjacent to both Long Island Sound and Plum Gut — the only area where Southold Town’s proposed zoning would allow development, Mr. DeLuca said.

To address these concerns, Group for the East End believes supplemental fieldwork should be done to more thoroughly examine the extent of Plum Island’s archeological potential. The group would like to see the federal government complete a Stage II Archaeological Assessment, which would involve excavating areas near where the mammoth bones were found in1879, Mr. DeLuca said.

“Should the property be transferred to private ownership, the extent of the island’s prehistoric [significance] should be at least as well understood as its other natural, historic and cultural resources,” he said.

The Group for the East End’s comments come on the heels of a statement issued by the environmental organization Save the Sound accusing the federal government of incorrectly recommending a full, unrestricted sale of Plum Island.

Save the Sound believes the FEIS is inconsistent with the National Environmental Policy Act in evaluating foreseeable impacts of development and fails to take into account the government interest in protecting habitats of rare species.

Randy Parsons, policy advisor for The Nature Conservancy of Long Island, said he agrees with Save the Sound.

“Regardless of whether there are woolly mammoth bones on Plum Island you would expect the federal government would want to know what is out there in terms of archeology and biology,” he said. “It points to a weakness in the way the island is run by the federal government.”

cmurray@timesreview.com