Saturday, February 27, 2010

Preserving Plum Island

Preserving Plum Island
by John Turner, HOBAS Conservation Chair

Located less than a mile from Orient Point, the tip of Long Island’s North Fork, lays the 840-acre Plum Island. Well known from Nelson DeMille’s book of the same title and more so because of the Animal Disease Center research facility that exists there and takes up less than 10% of the island, less well-known is the fact that about 90% of the island is undeveloped and this portion of the island has significant ecological value.

This value is reflected in many ways. The narrow eastern portion of the island serves as a seal haul-out site for as many as several hundred harbor and grey seals during the colder months, making it one of, if not the most significant haul-out site in southern New England.

Piping Plovers, a federally threatened species, breed on the island and Common and Roseate Terns, a federally endangered species, rest on the beaches of this undisturbed setting and actively feed in the waters surrounding the island as do numerous species of loons, grebes, and sea ducks.

The shrubby coastal vegetation that covers the island (including extensive thickets of beach plum which gave the island its name) provides habitat for several dozen breeding birds as well as important migratory stopover habitat for migrating species. This latter feature has been shown to be important for songbird species migrating over water in that it allows them an opportunity to land and feed, thereby replenishing their energy reserves. A large freshwater wetland exists in the southwestern part of the island. Cultural resources on the island include the Plum Island Lighthouse and the remains of Fort Terry, an old military fortification.

Unfortunately, the future of the island is uncertain and its significant natural resource values in trouble. This is because of a decision by the federal government, through a law passed by Congress and signed by the President, to close the Plum Island Animal Disease Center and sell the island to a private party for development. Proceeds of the sale are to help defray the expense of building a new facility, proposed to be built in Kansas.

Huntington-Oyster Bay Audubon Society has joined with the other Audubon chapters on Long Island (that collectively make up the LI Audubon Council) in an effort to reverse this action. We would like to see all or a significant fraction of the island dedicated as a national wildlife refuge, like the federal government has done so many times with other federally surplused properties, including several relatively close to Plum Island such as Sachuest Point, Block Island, and Nomans Island National Wildlife Refuges.

In early January Stella Miller and I, along with several representatives from the eastern LI Audubon chapters, met with Congressman Bishop to discuss the fate of the island and to express our position in support of preservation. While indicating his primary goal was to preserve the several hundred jobs that hang in the balance at the facility, Congressman Bishop stated his support for Audubon’s position regarding a conservation outcome. He also explained that due to the fact the buyer of the island is expected to cover the cost of constructing the new animal disease control facility, as mentioned above, and the decommissioning costs of the Plum Island facility it’s not likely anyone will come forward to purchase the island. Let’s hope Congressman Bishop is right because it will provide us a second bite at the apple.

In the weeks ahead we intend to meet with staff from the office of Senators Schumer and Gillibrand and public officials from Southold Town to discuss the future of the island. We also hope to work with other conservation and environmental organizations to establish a Plum Island Coalition to galvanize public attention on the issue.
Stay tuned as the story concerning the fate of this environmentally significant island unfolds in the weeks and months ahead.

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