During the winter months, as many as 300 harbor seals and gray seals bask on the offshore rocks of Plum Island, an 840-acre, pork chop–shaped island about a mile off the tip of Long Island’s North Fork. This makes it one of the largest seal haul-out sites in the area. “It’s really fascinating,” says John Turner, who’s visited Plum Island four times, twice during the cold season. “You’re able to hear the seals barking and see them swimming in the water. Then they just haul their fat little sausage bodies out onto the rocks. It’s remarkable.”
Turner is the spokesperson for the Preserve Plum Island Coalition, made up of more than 100 member organizations fighting to secure the permanent protection of the island’s natural and cultural resources. The groups came together after they learned that the federal government, which owns the island and its Plum Island Animal Disease Center, planned to put it up for sale. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has operated this research facility since 1954 but is now preparing to move the center—which studies infectious animal diseases like foot-and-mouth—to Kansas within the next several years. As a result, the fate of Plum Island itself remains uncertain. In 2009, Congress authorized DHS to sell it off through the federal General Services Administration (GSA) to the highest bidder.
Few prospective buyers have come forward, but one is notable. In 2013, Donald Trump told Newsday that he wanted to buy Plum Island to build a “really beautiful, world-class golf course,” and that fall, Trump representatives met with then-congressman Tim Bishop in his Long Island office to discuss the topic.
No deal has been reached in the years since, but advocates remain firmly opposed to development of the island—only 20 percent of which is used for research, and much of which serves as wildlife habitat. Over the years, Audubon has documented more than 200 bird species (about a quarter of all birds in the United States) breeding or foraging along its rocky shoreline, sandy beaches, and wetlands. These include federally endangered roseate terns, near-threatened piping plovers, and the bank swallow, a species on the decline in New York State. Plum Island is also a critical stopover for many migratory birds; its grasslands and forests are home to several rare plant species; and its surrounding waters provide important habitat for dolphins, whales, and sea turtles.
“We were twice able to get excellent scientists from the New York Natural Heritage Program to undertake an inventory of all the species found on Plum Island,” Turner says. “And after the work that they did the second time, we now refer to Plum Island as Treasure Island because of the exceptional value of the species, the rarities, and the natural communities.”
The coalition is also urging protection for the island’s cultural artifacts. Before it was the site of an early Revolutionary War skirmish, indigenous groups lived on the island, and historians are still discovering traces of their civilization that they left behind. It’s also home to the remains of Fort Terry, an artillery post during the Spanish-American War, World War I, and World War II. Meanwhile, the iconic Plum Island Lighthouse, first built in 1827 and replaced in 1869, has earned a place on New York State’s Register of Historic Places. According to preservation advocates, it is badly weathered and in dire need of repair—a task the Department of Homeland Security hasn’t made a priority. It is likely to deteriorate further once the island changes hands.
“You can’t speak about Plum Island without speaking in superlatives,” says Turner. “It’s crazy that there’s actually this movement to dispose of it from the public sector—an island that, if anything, should be a publicly owned space for people to enjoy.”
Turner, a longtime conservationist who cofounded the Long Island Pine Barrens Society in 1977, found out about Plum Island’s uncertain future from a 2009 Newsday article reporting the news that Congress had passed legislation approving its sale at auction. He was shocked; like others, Turner had assumed Plum Island would be safe from development since the federal government owned it. Typically, when a federal agency is looking to dispose of land, the GSA will first offer it to other federal agencies before trying to sell it to the highest bidder. Turner thinks the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service or a state agency would have been willing to take the island under its wing. But the government bypassed the usual process with the aim of using proceeds from the private sale to fund the new animal research center in Kansas.
In the years that followed the decision to sell the island, various officials attempted to preserve the island’s wilderness. In a preemptive move in 2013 (the same year that Trump expressed his aspiration for the island), the Long Island town of Southold voted unanimously to adopt local zoning for Plum Island. The regulations established two districts: 160 acres for research around the existing lab, and a conservation area where development would be prohibited. And in 2016, Congressman Lee Zeldin and other New York lawmakers introduced a bipartisan bill to block the sale. It passed the House but died later that year in the Senate.
Meanwhile, after years of research and efforts to raise local awareness of Plum Island’s plight, in July 2016 several organizations—Connecticut Fund for the Environment/Save the Sound, Group for the East End, and Peconic Baykeeper—along with three individuals, including Turner, filed a lawsuit against DHS and GSA to block the potential sale. They argued that the agencies’ environmental impact statement didn’t consider conservation alternatives as required, and therefore violated the National Environmental Protection Act, the Endangered Species Act, and other federal laws.
Early in 2017, the government filed a motion to dismiss the lawsuit, but a judge ruled in January 2018 that it could proceed. Then, last August, in another victory for the coalition, GSA announced it would prepare a more detailed supplemental environmental impact statement in 2019.
Throughout their fight, the plaintiffs have argued that the agencies should consider conservation as an alternative to a private sale that could result in overdevelopment of the island. But bringing the government around to that point of view will be a tough sell, acknowledges Louise Harrison, New York natural areas coordinator for the Connecticut Fund for the Environment/Save the Sound. “When they came back and said we’re going to do a supplemental environmental impact statement, they still would not commit to examining the conservation option,” she says. “So that’s something we’re still very concerned about and we’re advocating for.”
Richard Schrader, NRDC’s New York legislative director, agrees that the prospect of conservation should be dominating the conversation. “Not only should the federal government complete a full-bodied environmental impact statement for the island, but there’s real merit in examining the prospect of dedicating Plum Island’s undeveloped acreage as a national wildlife refuge.”
The Preserve Plum Island Coalition’s current focus is creating a detailed vision for Plum Island’s future as a site of conservation and research, an initiative sparked at the suggestion of congressional representatives, whom the advocates met with last November in Washington, D.C. The same month, the group held its inaugural Envision Plum Island meeting in Riverhead, New York, an invitation-only session that brought together about 50 participants, including elected officials, agency staffers, native Americans, historic preservationists, environmentalists, members of the business community, and academics.
Harrison notes that response to the initiative was overwhelmingly positive and that the stakeholders demonstrated a great deal of interest in upholding Southold’s zoning should Plum Island ever fall into private hands. “Once we have this plan, we’ll be able to sell the concept of conservation and preservation even better than we’ve been doing,” she says. “More specificity can only help,” she adds, as can a show of broad-based support for the plan.
In the end, Turner says, it comes back to the fact that most believe Plum Island should not just be sold off. “If ever there was a property that should become publicly owned, this would be it,” he says. “In fact, if this was privately owned, we’d be clamoring for the federal government to try to buy it as a park. The good news is we already own it, and we should keep it.”
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