Conservationists eye Plum Island for future wildlife refuge

While Plum Island remained off-limits to most humans for the last 50 years, birds by the hundreds have nested, rested and bred on its sandy shores and rocky beaches.

The large populations of loons, scoters, buffleheads, piping plovers, least and roseate terns and dozens of other species, along with wild orchids and other rare plants, are the main reasons why conservation groups are advocating that the 843-acre island should become a national wildlife refuge with public nature trails when the federal animal disease laboratory now there closes.

Because of the risks associated with the viruses researched at the lab, the public has been banned from the island.

The Connecticut Fund for the Environment/Save the Sound, the Fishers Island Conservancy, the Connecticut chapter of the Nature Conservancy and a new organization, the Preserve Plum Island Coalition, comprising 24 environmental groups and experts, began making their case to the federal government, which owns the island, at two meetings this week. The meetings, in Old Saybrook Wednesday and Greenport, L.I., Thursday, were held to give the public a chance to comment on the planned sale of the island once the lab moves to a new, $450 million facility in Manhattan, Kan. Design work for the new lab is under way.

"If you believe your mandate is to sell to the highest bidder, then our group and many others will be very upset and this process will extend for longer than any of us would desire," Curt Johnson, senior attorney for the Connecticut Fund for the Environment/Save the Sound told federal officials at Wednesday's meeting. "The sale of this island is a really, really big deal from an ecological and federal policy point of view."

Johnson noted that the island was designated in a 2006 agreement among the federal Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and New York and Connecticut as one of 33 of the most significant sites in Long Island Sound for ecological, scientific and recreational values.

Protection agreement

The agreement earmarks the 33 sites in the Long Island Sound Stewardship Initiative for efforts to "acquire or protect them through easements," and called Plum Island an "exemplary bird habitat of national if not international significance." The Audubon Society has identified it as one of its "Important Bird Areas."

Johnson argued that the federal government would be in conflict with its own laws and policies - the stewardship policy, as well as the Endangered Species Act and the Coastal Zone Management Act - if it sold the entire island for redevelopment. Instead, he suggested that only the portion of the island already developed - about 10 percent of the total - should be sold for reuse, and the rest should become a preserve. In addition to the lab, there are also the remains of Fort Terry, a military facility dating from 1897 that was decommissioned in 1948.

Federal and state governments spend millions to acquire ecologically important properties, Johnson added, but Plum Island is one that is already government owned, so selling it would make no sense.

Johnson addressed his comments to officials from the General Services Administration, which is handling the sale, and the Department of Homeland Security, which oversees the lab with the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The officials said they expected an environmental study of the impact of the planned sale to be completed this summer. Johnson, however, said a complete study would take at least a year because of Plum Island's importance for different populations of migratory birds in different seasons.

John Verrico, spokesman for the Science and Technology Directorate of the Department of Homeland Security, said Thursday that the Plum Island lab would remain open at least until 2018, the earliest the new lab could be ready. While some in Connecticut and Long Island are still hoping the 2008 decision by Congress to close the Plum Island lab will be reversed, Verrico said there is little reason to believe that will happen.

The existing lab, opened in 1954, is outdated, he said. The kinds of animal diseases that currently need to be studied, he added, require a higher level of biological protection and security for the scientists and the public than the Plum Island lab can handle. He listed eight livestock viruses that are the main concerns, some of which can pass from animals to humans.

"These are emerging diseases, not found here in the U.S.," Verrico said. "We could not upgrade the current facility and infrastructure there without having to build an entirely new facility."

Building a new lab in Kansas would be cheaper, he said. It would also provide the nation with a lab that is more accessible than Plum Island when disease samples need to be brought in and diagnosed quickly, he added.

Plum Island is accessible only by ferry service from Orient Point, Long Island and Old Saybrook. About 180 New York residents work on the island, and about 150 are from Connecticut. The 9.5-acre ferry landing in Orient Point will also be offered for sale.

Jobs also an issue

During Wednesday's meeting, Old Saybrook Selectman William Peace and Christopher Mitchell of Lyme called attention to the loss of good local jobs the Plum Island lab closure would bring.

"It seems to me the human element of a lot of people losing their jobs has been lost" in the talk about the island's future, said Mitchell, who has worked on the island's ferry for the last 12 years.

The island is located within the boundaries of the town of Southold, N.Y., but since all 843 acres have been owned by the federal government since 1901, the property has never been subjected to municipal zoning. Southold Supervisor Scott Russell said the town is working through the New York congressional delegation to try to keep the lab from closing.

"My first goal is jobs," he said.

The town would be opposed to redevelopment of the island for high-end housing, Russell said. If the lab does close, the town may be more likely to favor that most of the island stay in its natural state, and the developed part be turned into a research facility connected to a university.

But whether the new lab will ever be built, Russell believes, is far from certain, so discussions about the island's future may be premature.

"The big question now is, is this going to be a fruitless exercise?" he said.

j.benson@theday.com

FOR MORE INFORMATION

Comments and inquiries about the planned sale of Plum Island and the 9.5-acre ferry landing at Orient Point will be received through June 2. They should be sent to: Phil Youngberg c/o John Dyson; GSA; 10 Causeway St. Room 925; Boston MA 02222. They can also be sent via e-mail to: phil.youngberg@gsa.gov or by phone at (617) 565-5709.


Information can be found at www.plumislandny.com

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