Preserve Plum Island

For most southeastern Connecticut residents, Plum Island, barely visible on clear days just east of Long Island's Orient Point, conjures up the same scary images as "haunted house" or "Frankenstein's Castle" because of a federal animal disease laboratory run there for more than half a century.

While there's no truth to rumors scientists study anthrax on the 843-acre island, researchers have been working with eight other livestock viruses, some of which can pass from animals to humans. The general public, therefore, has wisely kept its distance from Plum Island.

This could all change, though, in the next decade if and when the lab shuts down and moves to Kansas. Conservation groups are pushing for Plum Island, home to hundreds of avian and plant species, to become a national wildlife refuge, complete with public hiking trails.

We like this idea - at least the refuge concept. Let the loons, scoters, buffleheads, piping plovers and terns have the run of the place, along with wild orchids and other rare plants. As for setting foot on Plum Island, we might wait a bit for the dust - and viruses - to settle.

Several conservation groups supported the refuge proposal last week during meetings with federal officials who are also considering selling Plum Island to developers. Such a sale is a bad idea that should be nipped in the bud. However much money the government raised could never replace one of the most prized shoreline habitats in the region.

In 2006 the federal Environmental Protection Agency, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and New York and Connecticut designated Plum Island as one of 33 of the most significant sites in Long Island Sound based on ecological, scientific and recreational value.

The Long Island Sound Stewardship Initiative also has called Plum Island an "exemplary bird habitat of national if not international significance," and The Audubon Society has identified it one of its "Important Bird Areas."

Conservationists acknowledge that about 10 percent of the island now used by the lab could be redeveloped for other purposes - preferably a research facility affiliated with a university - as long as the rest were protected. In addition to the lab, which opened in 1954 and now employs about 330 people, the island also contains the remnants of Fort Terry, a military facility dating from 1897 that was decommissioned in 1948.

Though Congress voted in 2008 to close the lab because researchers need better security and easier access, work has not yet begun on the Kansas replacement. The Plum Island lab is expected to remain open at least until 2018, the earliest the new facility could be built.

The Day editorial board meets regularly with political, business and community leaders and convenes weekly to formulate editorial viewpoints. It is composed of President and Publisher Tim Dwyer, Editorial Page Editor Paul Choiniere, Managing Editor Tim Cotter, Staff Writer Julia Bergman and retired deputy managing editor Lisa McGinley. However, only the publisher and editorial page editor are responsible for developing the editorial opinions. The board operates independently from the Day newsroom.

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