By Chris Cryder, Land Campaign Manager,
Save the Sound
Nearly three years ago, members of the Preserve Plum Island Coalition traveled to Washington, D.C. to lobby for conservation of Plum Island, NY. The federally-owned, 822-acre island, located at the eastern end of Long Island Sound, is home to nationally significant natural and cultural resources including lands traditionally used by Indigenous nations; a historic, decommissioned Army post; and more than 500 plant and animal species, 111 of which are rare. When scientific divers explored the waters around the island in fall 2019, they were awestruck by the sheer density and variety of aquatic life. Despite all this, Plum Island is currently slated for the auction block.
Faced with this reality, Congressional allies from New York and Connecticut had already been working hard to save the island. But some legislators weren’t yet convinced. They posed the advocates a question: “What do you see instead?” Instead of development, they meant. Instead of a golf course. Instead of condos. Instead of destroyed habitats, polluted water, and lost history.
The Coalition embarked on a two-year stakeholder process to answer that question.
Save the Sound and The Nature Conservancy’s New York office, both members of the Preserve Plum Island Coalition, brought together over 200 individuals in a series of conversations. Native American nations, business owners, ecologists, conservationists, historical preservationists, archaeologists, and local and state officials studied possibilities for the island. Consulting group Marstel-Day, LCC was brought on to analyze the possibilities and evaluate land transfer solutions.
The result, presented to Congressional staff and the public in July 2020, lays out both a vision for the island’s future, and a plan to achieve that vision.
The Envision Plum Island report recommends the development of the Plum Island Preserve. This carefully mapped approach identifies sanctuary areas for wildlife; plans for the preservation of historic Fort Terry and the Plum Island Lighthouse; a small educational and interpretative facility; and a campus for research on the site of the existing research facility (slated to close and move to Kansas). Together these vision steps would bring back jobs and allow local residents and tourists to take guided tours of the island’s spectacular and varied habitats.
The report also lays out how Congress and New York State can save the island.
In late July, the U.S. House of Representatives passed legislation to prevent the General Services Administration (GSA) from spending any money on the marketing or sale of Plum Island for one year. The same measure passed both chambers in December 2019 and was signed by the president, protecting the island for Fiscal Year 2020. The new language, should it pass the Senate this fall, will extend that temporary protection through Fiscal Year 2021.
Meanwhile Save the Sound and the whole Preserve Plum Island Coalition are continuing to advocate for permanent protection, which would be advanced by repealing the 2009 and 2012 laws that spurred the auction process. This would restore the standard federal process to transfer ownership of the island. U.S. Senator Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut and Representative Lee Zeldin (NY-1) have sponsored bills to do just that: S. 519, the Plum Island Conservation Act, in the Senate, and H.R. 1578, the Plum Island Preservation Act, in the House. The House bill enjoys a number of bipartisan co-sponsors. New York can help conserve the island by answering the question of what happens to it after it leaves federal hands. It could be administered by New York State.
If Governor Andrew Cuomo publicly declares the State’s interest in the island, paths will open to additional studies, resources, and negotiations. Congress has made it clear that if we want to save Plum Island from the auction block, we need specificity and unanimity in our vision—and feasibility in a plan. We now have that unified vision. With Congressional action and New York State’s help, we can make Plum Island Preserve a reality, protecting and restoring precious natural resources, celebrating history and culture, and maintaining vitally important high-quality jobs on Plum Island.
The full Envision Plum Island report, a shorter, visual Vision brochure, and other materials are available to the public at preserveplumisland.org/envision-report. ■