It is almost inconceivable that the future of a grand jewel among protected lands on the entire East Coast remains in doubt, but though there is hope that Plum Island could someday be preserved, it is far from certain.
The 840-acre island was carved from stones and sand, first by glacial waters, then by the rising and falling of tides. It is home to a huge variety of wildlife and a federal animal disease research center that dates to the 1950s. The laboratories and pens on Plum Island are expected to be shut for good soon. In their place, a state-of-the-art, $1.25 billion National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility is nearing completion at Kansas State University in Manhattan, Kan., and scheduled for a 2022 opening, according to the Department of Homeland Security, which oversees the construction. The Plum Island labs’ work is to be fully moved to the new facility in 2023. What happens after that has been the subject of prolonged debate.
The island is an extremely rare example of almost-pristine, undisturbed Atlantic coastal marine environment. It is used by as many as 200 species of birds and land creatures. Seals and anglers slip in and out along its rocky shoreline, chasing abundant fish. It contains long sweeps of untouched beaches, deep woodlands, and a few ponds teeming with life. But in 2008, President George W. Bush signed a bill funding the move to Kansas, in part by putting the island up for auction.
The irony is that Washington could therefore hasten its destruction as a natural preserve. And though Southold, of which it is part, has imposed tough restrictions on how the land could be used in the future, a private buyer could make significant changes, as well as remove the tantalizing prospect of public visits or university research if it were preserved as a park.
In addition to the Town of Southold, the region’s elected officials universally support preservation there. In December, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo signed legislation creating additional protections for marine mammals and sea turtles around Plum Island, as well as Great and Little Gull Islands. This added to their status as New York State bird conservation areas. Senators from Connecticut and New York State have advocated for the island, and a coalition in the House of Representatives, including Congressman Lee Zeldin, have also taken up the cause. Late last year, President Trump signed a bill that will pause the potential sale of the island for a year. However, at the end of the year, the Bush-era law goes back into effect, ordering the General Services Administration to begin the steps toward an auction.
Plum Island’s value as wild habitat is too special to become a private paradise for the ultrawealthy. In addition, there are many untold stories in the ground left for archaeologists to tease out. It must remain a place where visitors learn about and enjoy nature’s beauty in a raw form — a benefit far greater than any dollar amount the government could ever get for it.