Overlooking a sand dune on Plum Island with ocean shore on the right side.
Plum Island Saved The Nature Conservancy and partners are heralding a landmark win for the United States’ people, lands, waters, and wildlife. © Robert Lorenz

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Congressional Leaders Save Plum Island from Auction Block, Nature Conservancy Commends Extraordinary Bipartisan Effort

The Nature Conservancy and partners are heralding a landmark win for the United States’ people, lands, waters, and wildlife. The Omnibus Budget bill Congress finalized today will save Plum Island from the auction block. A jewel of the Atlantic, the island and its nationally significant natural and historic resources were jeopardized in 2008 when the normal federal process to repurpose the island was skirted, and the island was slated for private sale.

Thanks to an extraordinary, 12-year bipartisan effort among members of Congress, federal agencies, state and local governments, conservation organizations, cultural groups, and historic preservation groups, this national treasure can now be preserved and potentially opened to the public. The signing of the budget bill will prevent the public sale of Plum Island to private interests and developers, which would have caused irreversible harm to rare habitats, interfered with archeological study of the island’s use by Native Americans, and threatened the historic remains of Fort Terry.

Now, the many organizations that have fought for Plum Island’s preservation can help bring about a vibrant future for the island. Located off Long Island’s North Fork, Plum Island is historically Algonquin territory that became home to a 19th century lighthouse and Army post commissioned in 1897. Since the 1950s, it’s been the site of a federal laboratory, conducting advanced research on contagious animal diseases, which has helped to protect the nation’s agriculture. The Plum Island Animal Disease Center is slated to move to Kansas in 2023, which is why the island’s future has been uncertain.

The island’s beach and coastal areas have enjoyed unusual protection from human and vehicular traffic in the last 70 years and, in the process, have becomes oases for endangered and rare species of plants and animals such as piping plovers, which nest there, and roseate terns, which breed in large numbers on nearby Great Gull Island and forage in Plum Island waters. Some 227 bird species have been counted on Plum Island, and its waters include one of the few remaining seagrass meadows in Long Island Sound. It’s also the largest seal haul-out area in southern New England, where the rocky coast hosts several hundred grey and harbor seals each winter.

“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. “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.”  

“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,” said U.S. Senator Richard Blumenthal. “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.” 

“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,” said U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand. “This victory belongs to local activists and conservationists who knew all along that this was a fight we couldn’t afford to sit out.” 

"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,” said Congressman Lee Zeldin.

“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,” said Congresswoman Nita Lowey. “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.”

“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,” said Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro. “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.”

Bill Ulfelder, The Nature Conservancy’s New York executive director, said, “The Nature Conservancy is proud to have worked closely with members of Congress from across the country and diverse partners to save Plum Island. Historically Algonquin territory, the fate of Plum Island was caught in a bureaucratic quagmire for 12 years, but one thing was always clear: the tremendous support for conserving this extraordinary place with a fascinating history. This victory would not have been possible without the leadership of federal, state and local leaders, as well as the tireless advocacy of the Preserve Plum Island Coalition. The Nature Conservancy especially appreciates Senate Minority Leader Schumer, Senators Blumenthal, Gillibrand, and Murphy, and Congressmembers Zeldin, Lowey, DeLauro, and Courtney for their unwavering commitment to preserving the island’s remarkable wildlife and heritage and protecting good jobs that benefit the local economy.”

Frogard Ryan, The Nature Conservancy’s Connecticut executive director said, “The people of Connecticut have long depended upon Long Island Sound’s natural resources – that is why the Conservancy works with federal, state and local partners to protect and manage it’s critical coastal and marine habitats. I was lucky enough to visit Plum Island to better understand its ecological importance as a haven for migrating seals and shorebirds. We are so thankful that our Senators Richard Blumenthal and Christopher Murphy along with Representative Joe Courtney have been proactive leaders on this critical conservation opportunity, and that the Long Island Sound Congressional Caucus, co-chaired by Congresswoman DeLauro with Rep. Zeldin and Rep. Suozzi have similarly been such staunch supporters of efforts for Plum Island and the health and environmental quality of Long Island Sound.”

While more work is needed to realize the full potential of Plum Island’s future, the most critical hurdle to its preservation and economic redevelopment has been cleared. Preventing the public sale of the island was the most important step in ensuring a bright future for Plum Island.

In a report requested by and prepared for Congress, The Nature Conservancy, Save the Sound and the Preserve Plum Island Coalition released a vision and plan for Plum Island with broad support from representatives from the Montaukett and Shinnecock Nations, U.S. government agencies, scientists, nonprofits, academics, military history buffs, and many other stakeholders. Released in July 2020, the vision includes sanctuary areas for wildlife, preservation of the lighthouse and historic fort, an educational facility, and a campus for research.

This future would retain jobs and allow residents and tourists to take guided tours of the island for the first time. The Plum Island Envision report is viewable online along with more information about the island’s unique ecosystems, history and economic potential at preserveplumisland.org.

The Nature Conservancy is a global conservation organization dedicated to conserving the lands and waters on which all life depends. Guided by science, we create innovative, on-the-ground solutions to our world's toughest challenges so that nature and people can thrive together. We are tackling climate change, conserving lands, waters and oceans at an unprecedented scale, providing food and water sustainably and helping make cities more sustainable. Working in 72 countries and territories: 38 by direct conservation impact and 34 through partners, we use a collaborative approach that engages local communities, governments, the private sector, and other partners. To learn more, visit www.nature.org or follow @nature_press on Twitter.