Plum Island Tours Ended

Christine Sampson

Until recently, groups of 10 to 25 people were able to visit Plum Island, an uninhabited 840-acre question-mark-shape island in Long Island Sound and a wildlife sanctuary a mile and a half off Orient Point named for its beach plums. 

The island is home to a center that studies diseases that affect cattle, sheep, goats, and pigs, among other animals, most notably foot-and-mouth disease, rather than any that affect humans. It has been federal property since Fort Terry was built there in 1897 during the Spanish-American War. It became the Plum Island Animal Disease Center in the early 1950s and was operated as a research facility until 2013 when the Department of Homeland Security, which is charged with protecting food from animal-borne diseases, decided to move its mission to a new national facility in Kansas.

Now, as a response to litigation by a coalition of six environmental groups, the Department of Homeland Security has canceled all tours, including those sponsored by agencies hoping to establish the island’s environmental importance.  The coalition filed suit in 2016 to prevent the island’s sale, arguing that a sale was prohibited under the Endangered Species Act and alleging that a sale would put the endangered wildlife at risk. 

The island has been labeled a “critical resource area” by the Fish and Wildlife Service, a “significant coastal fish and wildlife habitat” by the New York State Department of State, and an “environmental stewardship area” in a scientific study of Long Island Sound. It is home to endangered piping plovers and to several hundred gray and harbor seals each winter. 

The government had decided to sell the island in 2009. With its location between the pricey developed coasts of Long Island and Connecticut, estimates of its value were in the hundreds of millions of dollars. But Save the Sound, Peconic Baykeeper, and Group for the East End formed a coalition to contest the sale.

In 2013 the Town of Southold, which has jurisdiction, zoned the island for the first time, designating 80 percent as a conservation district that could not be developed. The local community wanted none of the high-density development talked about for the island. The new zoning took a substantial chunk out of the potential sale price.

In an email, John Verrico, chief of media relations, science, and technology for the Homeland Security Department, said, “The purpose of the revised visitor policy is to minimize risks to the government in litigation and the eventual sale.” He said the new policy would remain in place for the foreseeable future, but that as circumstances changed, the department would consider reversing the policy “based on resource availability.” 

This may seem like a victory, but the environmental coalition remains cautious, concerned about deep-pocketed developers and potential changes in town leadership.