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A Victory for Plum Island Advocates in latest COVID Relief Bill

After 12 years, Plum Island is off the auction block because of a provision in the $2.3 trillion COVID-19 relief bill that passed on Monday. 

It’s been 12 years of fighting to prevent the sale of the island, said U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer, D-NY, during a public zoom call that included members of Preserve Plum Island Coalition, an alliance of more than 116 organizations 

“We fought for years to prevent the sale to a developer. We tried locating it, at first, with the National Park Service then with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service,” Schumer said. 

Since 1954, the 840-acre island located in Long Island Sound has housed the Plum Island Animal Disease Center, a federal research facility specializing in research on pathogens found in animals. 

The island is home to a number of endangered and rare wildlife species as well as a lighthouse built in 1869 and Fort Terry, a U.S. Army post built in 1897. 

In 2008, congress voted to move the lab to Kansas in 2023, to a new facility that would be funded by the sale of the island. 

“Plum Island really was an anomaly. It’s not the way that the federal government usually gets rid of land whenever they’re done with [its] particular purpose, said Leah Schmalz, chief program officer for Save the Sound, who coordinated the zoom call. 

Schmalz said that the repeal of the 2008 law means that normal disposition process for federal lands can be followed for Plum Island. First the property will be offered to other federal agencies, then to the State of New York, next to local municipalities, and, if there are still no takers, to nonprofit organizations. 

“It can be done through what’s called a public benefit conveyance, which would allow for a public interest use without the traditional fair market value price tag that goes along with it,” she said. 

The future of Plum Island could include the creation of a wildlife preserve, reuse of the lab building for research, construction of a small educational facility and preservation of Fort Terry and the Plum Island Lighthouse, according to the “Envision Plum Island” stakeholder report. 

Christopher Cryder, Preserve Plum Island Coalition Coordinator, said conservation of wildlife and habitat will be a priority, including the endangered roseate tern. 

John Turner, a naturalist and spokesman for the Preserve Plum Island Coalition, who has fought to preserve the island since 2008, said he was grateful the property was given a second chance. He said he hoped the public would have access to the property.

“Just imagine getting up in the morning, deciding to go out to Plum Island because it’s a public space. You put on your backpack, pack your lunches, get your camera and get your binoculars and take the ferry across,” he said. “You go to an orientation museum where you begin to learn about the values and resources of the island. Then you spend a day walking in salt air on eight miles of the shoreline or through trails over to the eastern point … where you might see roseate terns.You can look out over the landscape of Gardiners Island, Gull Island, Fishers Island, to the coastal Connecticut and Rhode Island shorelines, and then be able to see those fat sausages of seals on a hold-out on the rocks.”  

Schumer credited Democratic Senators Kirsten Gillibrand, Richard Blumenthal and Chris Murphy as well as Congressman Lee Zeldin, a Republican, with saving Plum Island. 

The bill includes $18.9 million for clean up of the island by the Department of Homeland Security. 

Schumer said he wanted to stay in touch with the nonprofits involved with Plum Island to promote the best outcome for the property. 

“At this point, I would not rule anything out. If there’s ways to have partnerships — federal, state, private — that make the result better and make the costs more shared, that would be fine,” he said.

Banner image credit: Google Map Data, 2020

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