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Mysterious, sacred land in Long Island Sound, 'gem' of nature, up for monument status. Where it stands

Ed Stannard, Hartford Courant on

Published in News & Features

HARTFORD, Conn. — While it’s been slow, there’s definitely been progress in the efforts to preserve the mysterious island in the middle of Long Island Sound, say advocates on both sides of the body of water between Connecticut and New York.

The latest move is a bill in Congress sponsored by U.S. Rep. Nick LaLota, R-N.Y., who represents Long Island’s Suffolk County. The bill would declare the island, owned by New York state, a national monument.

A hearing on the bill was held in March by the House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Federal Lands. LaLota could not be reached for this story.

The alternative way to make the island a monument would be a presidential declaration.

In addition to its natural resources, the many species of birds and other wildlife, “We want to preserve it for its ecological values, the American history that can be told there and its affiliations, its cultural significance to the Montaukett Indian nation, which was here for 10,000 years, or their ancestors were,” said Louise Harrison, natural areas manager for Save the Sound.

“We know the Montaukett Indian nation would like to be able to visit Plum Island and practice certain cultural traditions and visit their sacred places. So we have a lot of good reasons to preserve Plum Island,” she said.

The 840-acre island, which sits 10 miles south of East Lyme, houses a U.S. Department of Agriculture animal disease center, which for years has been set to move to Kansas State University. There would need to be environmental cleanup once the lab, which is still working on a vaccine for foot and mouth disease, finally moves.

“The facility kept people off the island, which was really different from most of the Long Island Sound area, so it hasn’t had a lot of encroachment on much of the island, which has kept those habitats in really great shape,” said Holly Drinkuth, director of river and estuary conservation for The Nature Conservancy in Connecticut.

“And they still support the largest haul-out of seals, which is exciting, and all kinds of migratory shorebirds use Plum Island for their breeding area and stopovers on migration. It’s just really a jewel, that’s kind of the last of its type in the Northeast,” she said.

Plum Island is home to 227 species of birds, including piping plovers, roseate terns, Northern harriers, ospreys and American oystercatchers, according to Save the Sound’s Envision Plum Island Report.

One battle already has been won. Plum Island had been put up for auction in 2009. The Preserve Plum Island Coalition, composed of 120 organizations, was formed in 2011 to fight it.

“Both the Senate and the House were able to get Plum Island off the auction block in December of 2020. So that was a major milestone,” Harrison said.

“So it’s a long-time effort and it’s bipartisan,” she said. “And we don’t know anybody who isn’t in favor of trying to protect Plum Island. It’s just a matter of the federal government moving very slowly. And the concentrating right now appears on decommissioning the laboratory on Plum Island.”

The island is held by the Department of Homeland Security, Harrison said, but if it’s not named a national monument, at some point the General Services Administration will try to find a new owner. That could put Plum Island back in danger of private ownership.

 

“They’re in charge of real estate for the federal government and they then start polling the other agencies in the federal government and ask them, are you interested, would you like to have Plum Island?” Harrison said.

“And if no agency speaks up, then they offer it to the state that the property is in. And if New York doesn’t want it, they would offer it to the county of Suffolk, which is the county here, or the town of Southold or a not-for-profit. And if nobody wants it, it goes back on the auction block,” she said.

Harrison said monument status is the best future for Plum Island “because it gives you flexibility.”

“If you had a national monument it would follow the proclamation of the national monument or the congressional bill for that,” she said. “So if you’re going for ecological conservation, you’d have that. If you’re going for historical preservation, you could have that, and the cultural heritage. … It’s not just aimed at one thing.”

“What’s happened is that the island has regenerated itself to the point where it is essentially a de facto wildlife preserve,” said Greg Jacob, senior policy adviser for The Nature Conservancy of New York.

“It is the way that coastal New York looked like back when the Pilgrims landed, the untouched, unspoiled natural environment of the Northeast, and we want to keep it that way,” he said.

Jacob said the problem now is invasive animals are starting to appear on the island, such as raccoons, which are raiding bird nests, as well as deer, which are eating rare plants.

“It’s a very fragile ecosystem, and there’s literally hundreds of species of animals and plants that are either at risk and are listed as endangered or are in need of special preservation and special attention,” Jacob said.

Rather than see the island decline as invasive species take over, Jacob said, “we want to see the island preserved now. We want to see a management plan now. And we want to see the federal government take responsibility for that island now. And the quickest way to get that done we found is through a national monument declaration.

“You’re not talking about preserving a big chunk of land, but because Plum Island is special, and because of the ecological, historical and cultural value of the island, it’s literally a gem,” Jacob said.

“This could actually be the crown jewel in the Biden administration’s land-preservation efforts,” he said. “And support of their 30 by 30 America the Beautiful plan, where they’d like to see 30% of America preserved by 2030. So it fits in with their agenda.”

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