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Island Wildlife Haven Saved from Public Sale

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Every winter, hundreds of seals bask on the offshore rocks of Plum Island. (Robert Lorenz)
Every winter, hundreds of seals bask on the offshore rocks of Plum Island. (Robert Lorenz)
January 15, 2021

NEW YORK -- An island in Long Island Sound with hundreds of acres untouched for 70 years has been saved from the auction block.

Plum Island is the site of an isolated federal lab researching infectious animal diseases. But the lab is being relocated and in 2008, the island was slated for public sale, potentially to private developers.

More than 100 conservation, cultural and historic preservation groups waged a 12-year campaign to save the 840-acre island as a wildlife sanctuary.

Greg Jacob, senior policy advisor for The Nature Conservancy, said part of the federal budget bill approved by Congress in late December put the island back into the normal process for repurposing unused federal land.

"The ultimate goal is to have a conservation outcome, for it to be kept as a natural jewel that it has become over time, for New York and for Long Island Sound," Jacob explained.

A report issued last July envisioned 80% of the island as a nature preserve and for the 20% where the lab was located to include an educational facility and research campus.

Jacob said a biodiversity survey done a couple of years ago showed Plum Island serves as a haven for a wide variety of wildlife, including some endangered bird and plant species.

"They identified 227 bird species," Jacob reported. "The waters off Plum Island hold one of the last remaining sea-grass meadows in Long Island Sound. It's the largest seal haul-out area in Southern New England, and hosts several hundred gray and harbor seals every winter."

The island is a nesting site for endangered piping plovers and serves as a feeding ground for rare roseate terns that breed on nearby Great Gull Island.

Jacob gave credit for the successful step towards preservation to the broad coalition that lobbied to save the island, and the bipartisan cooperation of local, state and national leaders, who worked together despite often harsh political divides.

"To see both parties and both the House and the Senate come together on this has been really a joy, and I think it points to the potential for other conservation issues to play out in a positive way," Jacob concluded.

Disclosure: The Nature Conservancy in New York - Long Island contributes to our fund for reporting on Climate Change/Air Quality, Environment, Public Lands/Wilderness, and Water. If you would like to help support news in the public interest, click here.
Andrea Sears, Public News Service - NY