Regional coalition calls on Department of Homeland Security to protect Plum Island

On behalf of the Preserve Plum Island Coalition, organizations including Connecticut Fund for the Environment, Group for the East End, North Folk Environmental Council, and Audubon have submitted a letter to the United States Department of Homeland Security (DHS) requesting that it analyze an array of conservation options in its forthcoming study about the final use of New York’s Plum Island. The agency currently proposes to sell the island to the highest bidder, which would almost certainly lead to eventual development that would destroy its natural, cultural, and historic resources.

The Senate Appropriations subcommittee on Homeland Security directed DHS to work with sister agencies on a study of options for long-term use of the island—options that include conservation opportunities and protection for the significant environmental and historic resources.

Preserve Plum Island Coalition is requesting that DHS evaluate:

  1. alternatives to a full sale that will achieve a maximum conservation outcome;

  2. conservation solutions can be accomplished under existing law; and

  3. managing historic structures, and public access opportunities for passive recreation like hiking or birdwatching.

The coalition is also requesting that data from environmental and cultural surveys performed by other entities be fully considered and that DHS provide actionable recommendations for a conservation outcome.

“With a report that could impact the fate of Plum Island expected in June, it’s more important than ever that environmental and historic preservation organizations have a say in the process,” said Leah Schmalz, program director at CFE/Save the Sound and member of the Preserve Plum Island Coalition. “Plum is a national and ecological treasure, but instead of protecting this valuable asset for people, endangered birds, seals, and sea turtles, the existing plan would see it auctioned off to the highest bidder for things like private golf courses or exclusive resorts. We hope the Department of Homeland Security works with the coalition to ensure the best possible outcome for the region: the permanent protection of Plum Island’s critical habitats.”

Plum Island is a federally-owned island currently home to a federal animal disease research center, which is scheduled to move in the early 2020s to Manhattan, Kanas. Plum is proximate to two estuaries of national significance and over 80 percent of the island is undeveloped, with miles of natural shoreline and critical wildlife habitat for rare plants and animals, including 220 bird species and the largest seal haul-out in southern New England. In 2013, DHS and the General Services Administration released their Final Environmental Impact Statement and Record of Decision. The documents failed to consider any conservation alternatives to an unrestricted sale and memorialized the agencies’ intent to move forward with a full, unfettered sale of Plum Island.  

“This beautiful island, an Audubon designated Important Bird Area, is a critical stopover site and breeding ground used by approximately 220 species, including endangered and threatened bird species. Without vital stopover sites like Plum Island, rich in food sources and resting areas, migrating birds simply would not survive the long journeys between their wintering and breeding grounds,” said Stella Miller, president of the Huntington-Oyster Bay Audubon Society. “Birds matter. They are indicator species as to the health of our environment, they provide us with free ecological benefits, and they are economic goldmines—birdwatchers funnel over $25 billion dollars into the economy each year. They also bring us joy.  The least we can do to thank birds for these services is protect the remaining places that are left for them to take refuge in. Plum Island should be preserved as a natural area so that it may continue to serve as a haven for birds and other wildlife.”

“The Department of Homeland Security now has a long-awaited opportunity and obligation to work with other federal agencies and set a new course for the conservation of Plum Island instead of an ill-advised sale through public auction,”said Robert DeLuca, president of Group for the East End. “We look forward to the report, remain hopeful for its objectivity, and appreciate the bi-partisan Congressional support that made it happen.”

“Eastern Long Island is blessed with many special environmental resources, many of which are threatened by the pressures of development,” said William Toedter, president of the North Fork Environmental Council. “Plum Island is perhaps the most special place and is under the most immediate but preventable threat. The one resource we don't have in abundance is time. The time is now to put the conservation of Plum Island on the right path so we don't lose the opportunity to protect and preserve the special and unique ecosystems found on and around this unique place before it's too late.”

“For centuries, Plum Island has served our nation as a historic coastal fortress, an important research institution, and a rich natural preserve that has provided refuge to numerous rare, threatened and endangered species and it deserves protection for centuries to come,” said Audubon New York Executive Director Erin Crotty. “Audubon New York and Audubon Connecticut truly appreciate existing Congressional support of its protection and respectfully request the Department of Homeland Security to consider conservation alternatives to save it from sale and development.”

The Preserve Plum Island Coalition consists of 66 conservation and historic preservation organizations, including Connecticut Fund for the Environment/Save the Sound, Audubon New York and Connecticut, Group for the East End, The Nature Conservancy, Citizens Campaign for the Environment, North Fork Environmental Council, and many others. It has worked for over seven years to ensure Plum Island’s critical wildlife, habitats, and historic and cultural assets are preserved.