Plum Island National Wildlife Refuge?

By Mike Bottini
May 24, 2010


Among Plum Island's natural resources is a complex freshwater wetland system of cattail marsh, forested swamp and open water.Among Plum Island's natural resources is a complex freshwater wetland system of cattail marsh, forested swamp and open water.

The effort to create a new national wildlife refuge on Plum Island gathered some serious momentum this spring when every major environmental group on Long Island signed onto the Preserve Plum Island coalition. Spearheaded by well-known naturalist and environmental activist John Turner, the coalition came together in response to a recent decision by the federal government to put the 840-acre island up for sale.

As proposed by the Department of Homeland Security, revenue from the sale would be used to cover the costs of closing the Plum Island Animal Disease Center facility and construct a new facility elsewhere. However, as was pointed out by our local congressman, U.S. Representative Tim Bishop of Southampton, in a public hearing on the matter last week, the $50 million to $80 million in expected revenue from the sale is far short of the projected $650 million price tag to build a new facility elsewhere. And those figures do not factor in the considerable costs associated with decommissioning the Plum Island facility.

The sale of the island also flies in the face of more than 20 years of federal initiatives, including tens of millions of dollars, to protect, preserve and restore the Peconic Estuary and the lands surrounding it. Plum Island is located in this federally-designated estuary “of national significance” and a short distance from some of the estuary’s most valuable fish and wildlife habitat: Orient Beach State Park, the American Museum of Natural History’s research station on Great Gull Island, and privately-owned Gardiners Island. In fact, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has labeled the Plum Island–Plum Gut–Orient Point area as a federally “Significant Coastal Habitat.”

It also sits within the boundaries of the Nature Conservancy’s “last great places.” TNC staff member Randy Parsons, who has many years of experience negotiating land acquisitions on eastern Long Island, questions the wisdom of selling an 840-acre island that is already in public ownership.

One hurdle that the coalition for Plum Island National Wildlife Refuge faces is the public misconception that the island lacks any significant natural habitat and natural resources. Although few people not associated with the research facility have ever set foot on the island, many of us imagine it to be a very unnatural place, largely developed, with complexes of laboratories and other quarantine facilities. In short, it’s a place to avoid.

In that sense, this initiative reminds me of the challenge we faced when trying to protect the amazing natural resources at Camp Hero State Park—which was closed to the public—from being developed into a golf course. Most people assumed the 400-acre parkland was entirely disturbed with buildings and cleared areas dating back to its days as a military post, when in fact only 90 percent of the site was high quality forest and freshwater wetlands.

This misperception changed very quickly soon after we secured permission to open the mile-long Point Woods Trail and lead groups of hikers and naturalists through the western end of the park.

Unlike Camp Hero, public access to Plum Island remains very restricted, and changing public perception of the island’s natural resources poses a much greater challenge. However, in recent years a number of wildlife biologists have gained access to document the island’s flora and fauna. Botanists Eric Lamont and Richard Stalter published the results of their 2002 plant survey, the Riverhead Foundation has included the island in their annual seal census, North Fork Audubon Society’s staff and volunteers have been monitoring the island’s breeding bird population over the past several years, and herpetologists Jeremy Feinberg and Tim Green visited the island last month to search for frogs, snakes, turtles and salamanders.

A summary of this field work, as well as the island’s cultural and historical resources, can be found in the Preserve Plum Island Case Statement, available at

Help us create Plum Island National Wildlife Refuge. Contact your federal legislators and tell them you want to see at least major portion of the island’s natural and historical resources transferred to the National Wildlife Refuge system.

U.S. Congressman Tim Bishop
137 Hampton Road
Southampton, NY 11968

U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand
155 Pinelawn Road
Suite 250 North
Melville, NY 11747

U.S. Senator Chuck Schumer
145 Pinelawn Road
Suite 30
Melville, NY 11747