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Standing up for Plum Island preservation

Louise Harrison, the natural area manager for New York- and Connecticut-based nonprofit Save the Sound, testified March 7 before a congressional subcommittee in the nation’s capital about the proposed designation of Plum Island as a national monument.

On March 15, 2023, New York’s 1st Congressional District Rep. Nick LaLota (R-Amityville) introduced the Plum Island National Monument Act, which calls for the 840-acre landmass to be “established as a national monument for the purpose of ecological conservation, historical preservation, and the discovery and celebration of our shared cultural heritage.” 

Ms. Harrison, a Peconic resident and conservation biologist, testified before the House of Representatives’ federal lands subcommittee on behalf of the Preserve Plum Island Coalition, an organization spearheaded by Save the Sound and made up of more than 125 national, regional and local groups that have been working to ensure the island’s permanent conservation. 

Ms. Harrison opened her testimony by “enthusiastically” endorsing Mr. LaLota’s bill, which has been co-sponsored by Republican representatives from New York and Democratic representatives from Connecticut.

“[Designating Plum Island] a national monument could return sustainable access to the people,” Ms. Harrison said. “It could tell the story of a unique American landscape, a key component of one of the very last wild coastal ecosystems, where the waters of two national estuaries meet and mix. Since the 1660s, most people’s access to Plum Island has been severely restricted or even prohibited. We want to reverse this inequity. The Montaukett Indian nation has told us that Plum Island is an important part of their cultural heritage and historical territory. Access restored will offer the chance once again to practice cultural traditions and visit sacred sites.”

Plum Island, located approximately a mile and a half east of Orient Point, is home to the federal Plum Island Animal Disease Center and boasts a relatively untouched — and, with only rare exceptions, off limits for visitors — landscape.

The Department of Homeland Security is slated to finish closing that facility in 2028 and relocate research to a new headquarters in Manhattan, Kan.

Elected officials at various levels of government, from Southold Town to the Suffolk County Legislature and the rotating House members representing the 1st Congressional District, as well as several advocacy groups and residents, have been pushing for Plum Island’s preservation for years.

If Mr. LaLota’s bill laid the foundation, his appearance with Ms. Harrison before the federal lands subcommittee last week could help Congress erect the beams and walls that will form a passable law and preserve Plum Island.

“It’s got some basic provisions, so they’re going to need to start marking it up and putting some detail in it,” Ms. Harrison said in an interview before her testimony. “I don’t know how long that would take, and the Preserve Plum Island Coalition is happy to work with the congressman on that … At a certain point, the chair [of the house subcommittee ] will decide if it can be referred up to the main committee, which is the House natural resources committee.”

During last Thursday’s meeting, Mr. LaLota, who attended at the subcommittee’s invitation, offered brief remarks before posing questions to Mr. Harrison and to Mike Reynolds, deputy director of the National Park Service.

“I recently had the privilege of visiting Plum Island with my colleague from the other side of the aisle, [Rep. Joe Courtney (D-Connecticut)],” Mr. LaLota said. “While I was there, I witnessed firsthand the critical need of protecting and preserving Plum Island … We must all work together to preserve Plum Island once and for all. 

Mr. LaLota questioned both Ms. Harrison and Mr. Reynolds about the timeline for designating Plum Island a national monument, asking what he could tell his constituents regarding the bureaucratic process. Mr. Reynolds replied, “I wouldn’t know how to answer that right now, but I would say the timelines will increase the more we stay together and keep talking with existing agencies that are managing the island.”

When the congressman asked Mr. Reynolds if existing studies of Plum Island could be used to expedite the process of declaring it a national monument, rather than having the National Park Service initiate a brand-new study of its natural resources and ecosystem, Mr. Reynolds answered “yes.”

To facilitate, Ms. Harrison said the Preserve Plum Island Coalition would “be happy to provide a complete bibliography of what’s available.”

During her testimony, she explained that passing this legislation will allow for greater access to the island for any future stewards, from governmental departments to environmental groups, to begin a management plan to preserve its ecosystem. Mr. LaLota’s bill currently states that a management plan must be developed within three years of securing funding for such a process. Ms. Harrison hopes this process will begin and be completed much more quickly.

“When we have things like invasive exotic species that overtake ecosystems, the native plants can’t support native wildlife and the ecosystem deteriorates,” she said. “We also need to control deer that come to the island because they do heavily browse these areas, and we have to make sure that the species who breed on Plum Island are cared for as well. There’s a whole complex series of reasons why it needs to be done soon. Also, comprehensive management planning takes time; it’s not something that can be done right away, and access to Plum Island has been prohibited for studies except for very special permission. We do need to get this underway, even if the Department of Homeland Security doesn’t leave Plum Island for a while yet.”