Plum Island tour highlights what might be lost if land is sold

Following the government recommendation for a public sale of Plum Island, U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District, and U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., joined environmental activists Wednesday on a boat tour around the island.

Allowing the approximately 840-acre island to fall into the hands of private developers would be "wrong-headed and short-sighted," said Blumenthal as the group left the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection dock in Old Lyme.

Plum Island has more than 600 acres of undeveloped land that is home to threatened birds, harbor seals and "an array of endangered plants," said Leah Schmalz, director of legislative and legal affairs for Save the Sound.

The Plum Island Animal Disease Center, a government research facility located on the island, also supports hundreds of Connecticut jobs, Courtney said.

Courtney and Blumenthal have introduced legislation in their respective chambers that would give more options to the General Services Administration, which is in charge of selling the island. Courtney said the GSA skipped the normal process of first offering the property to governmental or nonprofit organizations because there was pressure to complete the sale in a budget-neutral way, and the government is spending hundreds of millions of dollars to transfer the animal research facility to Kansas.

"Vilsack's budget is under tremendous stress," said Courtney, referring to U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, whose department is in charge of the research facility.

To dedicate so much money to this project "makes no sense," Courtney said, and he plans to "continue to raise questions with the USDA about the logic and feasibility of the plan to uproot this research facility."

Additionally, both Courtney and Blumenthal said moving the research to Kansas was potentially hazardous, given the research on animal pathogens conducted there.

"Moving it to the farm belt in the middle of nation's food supply will be anathema to senators and congressmen out there as well," Blumenthal said.

Ideally, said Courtney, Plum Island would stay just the way it is today: publicly owned, home to the research facility and mostly undeveloped.

Blumenthal said the boat tour was the closest he's been to Plum Island and that it was "eye-opening to see all the beaches."

"If Plum Island were not held by the federal government," said Blumenthal, "we would be wringing our hands and agonizing about how to save it from private development."

Patrick Comins, the director of bird conservation of the Connecticut chapter of the National Audubon Society, agreed with Blumenthal's assessment. He said he'd preferably like to see the island turned into a national park or a wildlife refuge - anything that would protect the natural resources but allow the public access.

Comins, who spent a large portion of the boat tour peering through a pair of binoculars, said the island appears to be a critical part of the migration pattern of several bird species.

"We have so little information on how spectacular this is for bird migration," said Comins, who took a rare tour of Plum Island and was able to observe the birds that inhabited the island on a September morning.

He said the birds fly at night and, during the day, use the island as a place to sleep and eat without having to worry about cats and other predators.

If development went through, he said, "hundreds of species of birds" would be affected.

The island is home to some endangered and threatened birds, said Schmalz, including the common tern and least tern. During the boat tour, Comins said he saw another bird that is "extremely rare" in the area - either a red phalarope or a red-necked phalarope, which normally lives in arctic areas but is sometimes blown down to the Long Island Sound during stormy weather.

"The island is such a spectacular natural resource," he said. "The bird life is phenomenal out there."

The GSA recently released an environmental impact statement that recommended private sale of the property, but Schmalz said her organization found that statement to be "inadequate and fundamentally flawed."

She said the statement relied on old data and failed to take into account recent zoning of the island by the town of Southold, N.Y., which she said will affect the interest in the land as well as its price.

The GSA should have done a four-season study of the island's environment, she said.

Courtney said seeing the island first-hand Wednesday will give him more credibility to talk about the issue. He said he's heading back to Washington with a plan to "put a dash of cold water on the grandiose thinking" surrounding this proposal.

"You're going to lose an environmental asset that you just cannot recreate," he said.

k.catalfamo@theday.com

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