Rare Opportunity to Save an Island

Plum Island provides critical nesting sites for the federally threatened and New York State endangered piping plover

Plum Island, a federal facility off the North Fork within eyesight of the South Fork and coastal Connecticut, could soon be sold to private interests unless a broad effort by officials at several government levels and environmental groups succeeds in having it set aside for preservation, most wisely as a national wildlife refuge. 

In a plan approved by Congress to move the animal disease laboratory there to a site in Kansas, the 840-acre island would be disposed of at auction. Opposition to its sale is considerable in the region, and many residents hope the auction can be blocked and the island returned to a more natural state as parkland or a wildlife reserve. 

According to the Group for the East End, Plum Island provides critical nesting sites for the federally threatened and New York State endangered piping plover and is seasonal home to as many as 190 other bird species. If that weren’t convincing enough, 40 rare or protected plants can be found there. In addition, there is history, in the form of the 1870 Plum Gut Lighthouse and the 1897 Fort Terry army barracks and weapons batteries. 

The push to prevent the sale of the island received additional support this week when Representative Lee Zeldin renewed a House bill that would block the planned auction. Mr. Zeldin, who is seeking re-election in the fall, has been a consistent backer of conservation efforts, picking up on the work of former Representative Tim Bishop, an advocate for preservation whom he defeated in 2014. New York Senators Charles Schumer and Kristen Gillibrand, along with Senator Chris Murphy of Connecticut, also have introduced a bill like that of Mr. Bishop and Mr. Zeldin, transferring the island to the Fish and Wildlife Service or National Parks Service. 

When the Department of Homeland Security recommended to Congress that the lab should be moved to Kansas, years ago, the thinking was that the money raised by selling Plum Island to the highest bidder would help offset the cost of the new facility. However, Southold Town changed the island’s zoning in the hope of dissuading developers. A Southold law passed in 2013 would allow for only education, research, or recreation on the portion of the island now used for the animal disease lab, and it prohibits development of any kind on a remaining 600 acres. This was a shrewd move, effectively slashing the potential value of the island by severely limiting its possible use for housing or even as an exclusive golf course and resort, as none other than Donald Trump at one time was said to have contemplated.

Those favoring the island’s preservation say that because the potential income has been reduced, the island’s sale is no longer worth the cost of losing such a precious asset. The Senate and House bills would remove a stipulation that it be sold.

It is almost unthinkable now, as interest in improving Long Island Sound’s water quality — and in tamping down traffic and infrastructure demands on the twin forks — is on the rise that any form of new, intensive use could be tolerated on Plum Island. In decommissioning the laboratory and restoring as much as possible of the island’s natural state, there is a rare opportunity to turn back the clock, protect the Sound, and create something that can be enjoyed for generations to come. Doing everything possible to save Plum Island should be at the top of the priority list for the region.