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Plum Island ‘closer than ever’ to being saved as federal spending bill would block sale

After more than a decade of uncertainty, the mandated sale of Plum Island may be off the table as part of a federal spending bill that could be approved this week.

U.S. Senators Charles Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand announced Wednesday that a provision in the 2021 federal spending bill will permanently block the sale until local entities decide what the 840-acre island’s fate should be.

In a press release, Mr. Schumer said the spending bill includes $18.9 million for cleaning up the island, which will remain under federal ownership through the Department of Homeland Security.

“We’re closer than ever before to saving Plum Island.”

Louise Harrison

The island is home to the Plum Island Animal Disease Center, established by the United States Department of Agriculture in 1954 to conduct critically needed research into animal diseases. It has also historically been used for military posts and training facilities, like Fort Terry.

In 2008, Congress passed an appropriations bill that called for closing the research facility and selling Plum Island to the highest bidder in an effort to offset costs for a new lab in Manhattan, Kansas. 

“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,” Mr. Schumer said in a statement, adding that it would have been a “grave mistake” to sell the island.

Sen. Gillibrand said Long Islanders should celebrate the preservation of a “rare national treasure.” 

“This victory belongs to local activists and conservationists who knew all along that this was a fight we couldn’t afford to sit out,” her statement read.

Over the years, there has been a concerted effort between elected officials and environmental groups in both New York and Connecticut to halt the sale.

Because of its remote location and restrictions that limited both development and visitation to the island, environmental advocates say Plum Island and the waters surrounding it have become ecologically diverse.

The environmental group Save the Sound, which coordinates the Preserve Plum Island Coalition, renewed its push for preservation this summer.

The group released a report in July that shows the island, located just east of Orient Point, is home to 227 bird species—nearly a quarter of all bird species in the United States and Canada stretching all the way to the Arctic.

A separate survey of marine habitats around the island conducted in September 2019 revealed its waters are home to an abundance of animal and plant life, including communities of sponges, bryozoans, and tube worms covering immense boulder fields, coral, anemones, eelgrass meadows, blue mussels, seals and kelp species.

“We’re closer than ever before to saving Plum Island,” said Louise Harrison, the New York natural areas coordinator for Save the Sound.

In 2006, the Long Island Sound Stewardship Initiative identified the island, along with Great Gull and Little Gull islands for their “exemplary” ecological value, noting that development could threaten endangered species like the piping plover and Atlantic Ridley sea turtle.

Adrienne Esposito, executive director of  Citizens Campaign for the Environment, said Wednesday that the bill is a “tremendous” victory. “It allows us now to take the next step which is permanent preservation of the island,” she said, which includes low impact public access and economic benefits for both New York and Connecticut. “It is really a window into the history of what Long Island looked like,” she said, describing a visit to the largely untouched island.

In 2013, Southold Town established two zoning districts for the island in an attempt to preempt the threat of future development. The ferry terminal in Orient, which provides access to Plum Island, was also recently rezoned to ensure it remains functional.

“The town’s zoning was a vision of what we’d like the island to become, which is a pristine preserve with responsible public access,” Town Supervisor Scott Russell said.

While management won’t fall under the town’s purview, the supervisor said he’d like to see a research or educational facility remain operational. “We desperately need to retain jobs. That’s a huge threat to us,” he said.

Working with members of congress from Connecticut, Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley) has secured House passage of similar measures multiple times before progress stalled in the Senate.

He said mandating the sale of the island was the wrong path forward. “Securing a better future for the island through whatever means possible will preserve its rich history and tap into its limitless potential for generations to come,” Mr. Zeldin said in a statement.

In a statement Wednesday, Mr. Zeldin’s office said, “Senator Ron Johnson (R- WI), Chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, had opposed reversing this federal law due to long standing opposition by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS).

“In the past two weeks, as Congressional funding was being negotiated, Congressman Zeldin worked closely with Senator Johnson and White House and DHS leadership to successfully advocate for their assistance to remove the opposition and get this extremely high priority over the finish line for the First Congressional District of New York. Congressman Zeldin also worked with Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D, NY) who played an important role as well to support this effort.”

The Plum Island amendment included in the spending bill calls on the General Services Administration to repeal the sale requirement. The spending bill must pass by the end of the day Friday in order to fund the government, officials said.