In a year of unrelenting bad news, the region got an end-of-December gift in the form of language in a federal appropriations bill that would stop the looming sale of Plum Island to the highest bidder. For more than a decade, elected officials at every level have tried to overturn a 2008 order that would have auctioned the 840-acre island to help pay for a new animal disease research center in another part of the country.
Aside from its rare ecological value, Plum Island has a fascinating human history, going back, of course, to the native people who lived there, hunted, and eventually farmed for thousands of years. It fell into English hands in 1659, and again was farmed. It was briefly considered as a resort in the 19th century but became a military defensive position as the Spanish-American War began. Fort Terry was the anchor for a string of fortifications that included Fort Tyler at the north end of Gardiner’s Island. Several remarkable structures, including a lighthouse, remain from that period. At one time, the fort had enough space for more than 700 troops. It was decommissioned by the military after the end of World War II.
In the 1950s Plum Island was turned into a federal animal disease laboratory and was the sole place in the United States where the most virulent livestock pathogens could be studied. If the island was off-limits to visitors during its possession by the military, it became many more times so as a research center. The idea was to isolate diseases that, if they reached the mainland, could devastate the production of meat, milk, and related commodities. At its peak, about 400 scientists and support staff worked there. In the 2008 order, Congress authorized the new and more modern facility, which would eventually be sited in Kansas, starting the clock toward a private sale.
In an extraordinary bipartisan effort, Senators Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand of New York and Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, the chairman of the Homeland Security Committee, were able to come up with a way to preserve the island. Along with an approved bill backed by House Representative Lee Zeldin, the path now appears clear for someday restoring public access to this gem of the Peconic Bay system and Long Island Sound.
Specific plans for the future of Plum Island have not been set, but its value as a wildlife habitat and important stop for migrating birds will endure. To all of those who worked for years to make this happen, we say thank you.