Press Release: Plum Island Auction Off Table as Congress Repeals Sale Laws; Preserve Plum Island Coalition Applauds

Logo showing silhouette of Plum Island and a tern

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

Monday, December 21, 2020 (updated Dec. 22)

CONTACT: Laura McMillan, Save the Sound, lmcmillan@savethesound.org

Press Release: Plum Island Auction Off Table as Congress Repeals Sale Laws; Preserve Plum Island Coalition Applauds

Repeal opens path to permanent protection of Plum Island’s habitats, endangered wildlife, Native American history, jobs, and historic landmarks

Long Island, NY – Congress is poised to take a major step towards permanent conservation of Plum Island. The federal budget package released Monday afternoon includes language (Division FF, Title V) repealing 2009 and 2012 bills associated with the plan to relocate the animal disease research facility on Plum Island to Manhattan, Kansas. The House and Senate passed the bill Monday night with an hour to spare. The president is expected to sign the package, but it also enjoys a veto-proof majority.

This action restores the normal disposal procedure for federal property instead of auctioning it off to the highest bidder. Next steps then include ensuring the island is transferred to another federal agency, state, or other body, a process that may take several years.

“Our longtime push to save Plum Island from some ‘high bidder’ or anyone else who might neglect its natural resources, environmental value, our local stakeholders and concerned communities is now realized—Plum Island is saved and its sale is finally off the table,” said U.S. Senator Charles Schumer, Minority Leader (D-NY). “It would have been a grave mistake to sell and develop Plum Island’s 840 acres of habitat, which is home to many endangered species. That’s why preventing the unnecessary sale requirement was a top priority of these negotiations. Now the people of Long Island will have their say in its future—and rightfully so.” 

“It is rare in conservation to get a second chance. All too often, a species becomes irretrievably lost to extinction or a forest is irreparably destroyed by development. But Congress, through repeal of the mandate directing the sale of Plum Island, is giving the island a second chance,” said John Turner, spokesperson for the Preserve Plum Island Coalition. “But this second chance is really a first step. The Coalition calls on all those who care about Plum Island to stand by as we look to the next steps in keeping it forever in public ownership.”

The Preserve Plum Island Coalition (PPIC), an alliance of 116 organizations across New York, Connecticut, and Rhode Island, has been fighting to save the island’s rare habitats and cultural resources for a decade. The Coalition has developed a vision for the island’s future and, should Congress take a public auction off the table by passing the bill, will shift its attention to implementing that vision, starting with identifying an appropriate owner for Plum Island that can ensure conservation.

Plum Island, located at the eastern end of Long Island Sound, is home to nationally significant natural and cultural resources including lands traditionally used by Indigenous nations; a historic, decommissioned Army post; and more than 500 plant and animal species, 111 of which are species of conservation concern. For 11 years it has been at risk of being sold to private developers, which would deprive the public of all the island has to offer. Such a sale would also cause irreversible harm to wildlife, including seals and endangered roseate terns; threaten historical buildings; and risk Indigenous and American cultural history.

“We’re closer than we’ve ever been to saving Plum Island,” said Curt Johnson, president of Save the Sound, which coordinates the Preserve Plum Island Coalition. “Senator Schumer’s negotiating power, Senators Murphy and Blumenthal’s networking, and the leadership of Congressmembers Zeldin, DeLauro, Courtney, and Lowey—along with unwavering support from the entire Long Island Sound Congressional delegation—have brought us this far. With the passage of this bill, the normal process for dealing with federally-owned property is re-opened. A path to permanent conservation is within our sights and Save the Sound will be there every step of that path.”

Bill Ulfelder, New York executive director of The Nature Conservancy, said, “The Nature Conservancy is proud to have worked closely with members of Congress from across the country and partners to save Plum Island. This bipartisan victory would not have been possible without Senators Schumer, Blumenthal, Gillibrand, and Murphy, and Congressmembers Zeldin, Lowey, DeLauro, and Courtney. We are grateful for their unwavering commitment to preserving the island’s remarkable wildlife and heritage and bringing back good jobs that benefit the local economy.”

“Plum Island is an ecological treasure, and the historic gateway to the Peconic Estuary, and because of the dedicated work of our elected leaders in Connecticut and New York, this magnificent environmental asset is finally being pulled off the market for a sale to the highest bidder,” said Bob DeLuca, president, Group for the East End. “The preservation of Plum Island has been eastern Long Island’s largest single conservation priority for over a decade, and today we are one step closer to that ambitious and important goal.”

The most recent budget language, championed by Senators Chuck Schumer and Chris Murphy and Congressman Lee Zeldin, restores the usual disposal process for federal properties, which entails offering the property first to other federal agencies, then to the state of jurisdiction, followed by the county and municipalities, then nongovernmental organizations. This opens the path to ownership and management by a federal agency or a state body, or a partnership of such bodies.

U.S. Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) said, “Today we can finally and fully celebrate preserving Plum Island. This exquisite environmental treasure has been spared a headlong rush to sell to the highest bidder. We will continue to fight to preserve this special gem from future development. Plum Island is a unique environmental resource that is home to hundreds of species of wildlife and numerous important historical sites that must be preserved for future generations to enjoy. I thank Connecticut’s environmental advocates, including Save the Sound and The Nature Conservancy, for their tireless work in this effort. I also thank my colleagues from the New York and Connecticut delegations for their partnership in securing this important provision.”

“It’s taken years of work to get this done, but finally, we’ve stopped the shortsighted plan to sell Plum Island to the highest bidder,” said U.S. Senator Chris Murphy (D-CT). “Plum Island is so important, both ecologically and historically, and I’m proud to stand with my colleagues in the Connecticut and New York delegations who have worked tirelessly with me to get this repeal across the finish line.”

U.S. Representative Lee Zeldin (NY-1) said, “Not only does Plum Island offer diverse wildlife, a precious ecosystem and critical habitat for migratory birds, marine mammals, and rare plants, but it is an essential cultural and historical resource as well. The current law, which mandates the sale of the island to the highest bidder, is the wrong path forward. It’s an honor to deliver this huge win that will reverse that law and help preserve Plum Island’s rich history and tap into its limitless potential for generations to come.”

Innumerable lawmakers at every level of government have contributed to the ongoing fight to permanently protect Plum Island. In the last two years alone, this includes the following cosponsors of multiple pieces of federal legislation: U.S. Senators Schumer, Blumenthal, Gillibrand, and Murphy, and U.S. Representatives Lee Zeldin, Joe Courtney, Rosa DeLauro, Antonio Delgado, Eliot Engel, Peter King, James Langevin, John Larson, Nita Lowey, Grace Meng, Kathleen Rice, and Tom Suozzi.

The Coalition has been assisted in its congressional advocacy this year by Layth Elhassani, a pro-bono legislative liaison from Covington & Burling LLP.

Assets to be released from public sale by the repeal legislation include a 9.5-acre ferry transport parcel and harbor at Orient Point, New York. The ferry parcel and Plum Island are considered one property to be disposed of together. The legislation also provides $18.9 million for decommissioning and cleanup of the island.

In July 2020, The Nature Conservancy and Save the Sound briefed congressional staff on Envision Plum Island, a report developed at the request of congressional offices and in partnership with consulting group Marstel-Day. The PPIC convened large groups of diverse stakeholders, including critical leaders from the Town of Southold, NY, Suffolk County, the New York State Legislatures, and the State of New York’s administration, to identify viable alternatives to development. Over the course of two years, Native American nations, business owners, ecologists, conservationists, historical preservationists, archaeologists, and local and state officials studied possibilities for the island. The document laid out detailed options for ownership and management which can now be explored in earnest, and a holistic vision for use of the island and ferry parcel. This includes conservation of over 600 acres for wildlife, carefully managed ecotourism, preservation of historic Fort Terry and the Plum Island Lighthouse, reuse of existing buildings and generation of research jobs, and a small museum highlighting the island’s natural resources and cultural resources.

What the region’s federal legislators and members of the Preserve Plum Island Coalition steering committee are saying:

U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY):

“After years of fighting to keep the unnecessary sale of Plum Island off the table, Long Islanders can finally celebrate the preservation and protection of this rare national treasure for generations to come. This victory belongs to local activists and conservationists who knew all along that this was a fight we couldn’t afford to sit out.”

U.S. Representative Rose DeLauro (CT-3):

“This is a tremendous victory for Plum Island and the people of Connecticut, and it is in large part thanks to the hard work and advocacy of the local groups fighting to protect this ecological treasure. Plum Island is home to a rare natural ecosystem that should never be up for sale to the highest bidder. Congress has an obligation to protect this island and its natural resources. That is why as a leader on the House Appropriations Committee, and now the Chair-designate, I fought to include this language in the fiscal year 2021 spending bill to preserve Plum Island and prohibit the mandatory sale of this ecological treasure. I urge my colleagues to join me in ensuring this rich environment is protected well into the future.”

Congressman Joe Courtney (CT-2):

“The House has successfully passed our legislation to preserve Plum Island for five years in a row, and the final negotiated omnibus spending package we passed yesterday will get the job done once and for all. Plum Island is an ecological treasure, and for over a decade the Connecticut and New York delegation members have been working across the aisle and across the Long Island Sound to get this across the finish line. Now that the House and Senate have passed the bill, the President needs to move quickly to enact it.”

U.S. Representative Nita Lowey (NY-17):

“When I first ran for Congress I made a commitment to clean up Long Island Sound and protect the neighboring ecosystems, including those on Plum Island. While our current administration has tragically gutted environmental protection laws, it is essential that we protect at-risk animals and their habitats from further threats. With the passage of the omnibus, Plum Island will not be sold to the highest bidder, and we can prioritize the conservation of this jewel in Long Island Sound. The island will continue to be a haven for species of conservation concern and a natural resource appreciated by the public.”

U.S. Representative Jim Himes (CT-4):

“We are stewards of the natural beauty of the Long Island Sound, charged with preserving it for future generations. Preserving Plum Island ensures that we will protect it from development that may harm our region environmentally and economically in both the near- and long-term.  Representatives on all levels and from Connecticut and New York have fought for years to prevent a negative outcome, and it’s a huge victory for all our communities and our nation’s natural spaces to see that work come to fruition.”

Erin McGrath, policy manager, Audubon New York:

“Bird and nature lovers can breathe a sigh of relief now that the option for Plum Island to be sold at auction is going, going, gone. This ecological treasure is a key breeding and stopover site for thousands of birds, including at-risk and priority species like the Roseate Tern and Piping Plover. Losing it to human development would be an unacceptable loss of biodiversity. We applaud Senators Schumer, Murphy, and Blumenthal and Representatives Zeldin, DeLauro, and Courtney, for creating a path toward the future protection of Plum Island and the birds that depend on it.”

Adrienne Esposito, executive director, Citizens Campaign for the Environment:

“What an historic moment! A trip to Plum Island is like walking back in time to a natural environment that is largely untouched. The preservation of Plum Island is truly something to celebrate. A heartfelt thank you goes to our elected champions that have been fighting hard to reverse the sale of this unique ecosystem, including Senators Blumenthal and Murphy, Congressman Zeldin, Congresswoman DeLauro, and of course the formidable Senator Schumer. Now we can look forward to future generations enjoying the magnificent island which is home to a treasure trove of threatened species, marine mammals, and rare native plants.”

Susan MacKenzie, president, North Fork Environmental Council:

“North Fork Environmental Council is extremely grateful to all of our elected officials for working so hard to make the goal of preserving Plum Island a reality. This is a huge step. Plum Island is an irreplaceable gem and has been on NFEC’s preservation wish list for decades.”

Drianne Benner, president, Orient Association:

“The Orient Association is grateful to our elected officials, including Senators Schumer, Blumenthal, and Murphy as well as Representative Lee Zeldin, for their hard work in assisting in the preservation of Plum Island, that most significant historic and natural resource just off the coast of Orient Point. We look forward in continuing to work with these officials and all the civic and groups and associations in this most important preservation effort so that future generations will be able to enjoy the natural beauty of Plum Island.”

Richard Remmer, vice chair, Parks & Trails New York, and Long Island State Parks Commission:

“Being so close to preventing the sale and possible development is great news considering the proximity of Plum Island and the mainland marina to Orient State Park which, like Plum Island, is a priceless public treasure.”

Jane Fasullo, field educator and outreach coordinator, Sierra Club – L.I. Group:

“Plum Island is a true gem in the sea. Due to its many years of being off limits to human interference with nature, it now contains some of the East Coast’s most important species, some found only in a few other places and others found nowhere else. After many years of work by individuals and organizations, it is encouraging to know it now stands a chance of remaining the unique island it is.”   

Chris Zeeman, historian:

“In addition to protecting significant natural and cultural resources, preventing the sale of Plum Island will preserve its rich military history. The remains of Fort Terry, although neglected, have been protected from vandals and destruction due to restricted access to the island. They will provide future historians with many resources and areas of study.”

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The mission of the Preserve Plum Island Coalition (PPIC) is to secure the permanent protection of the significant natural and cultural resources of Plum Island.

An electronic press packet is available for media and includes background documents, maps, video, and photographs of Plum Island.


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