The prodding, pressure and German street conversation that helped save Plum Island

A multiyear bipartisan effort — with Rep. Lee Zeldin lobbying a key U.S. senator and leveraging friends in the White House and then a final push from Sen. Chuck Schumer — has put in place legislation to preserve Plum Island for generations.

Congress in 2008 ordered the sale of the environmentally sensitive land mass in Southold Town, about 1½ miles off Orient Point, to the highest bidder. But after years of opposition from local leaders and environmentalists, a provision in the recently passed $2.3 trillion combined spending and coronavirus relief bill signed into law Dec. 27 stops any transfer of ownership.

"Right now, there are hundreds of seals basking on the rocks of Plum Island. And they are smiling at you today," Chris Cryder, coordinator of the Preserve Plum Island Coalition, said during a Dec. 29 virtual news conference hosted by Zeldin (R-Shirley).

Here’s a timeline of some of the effort that made it possible:

The year was 2013, and...

Southold Town officials instituted more restrictive zoning to make Plum Island less attractive to developers, part of an effort by local officials and environmentalists who for years would seek to stop a potential sale. Bills to preserve the island later passed in the House but stalled in the Senate as Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wisconsin), the chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, had put a hold on such legislation, Zeldin said.

In the ensuing years...

Legislators continued to propose legislation blocking the sale.

Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley), who said that Plum Island was...

Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley), who said that Plum Island was the top priority for New York State, was instrumental in helping secure passage of legislation to ensure it would not be sold. Credit: Ed Betz

In July 2017, the House passed a bill sponsored by Zeldin seeking to halt the island’s sale and requiring a study on how best to conserve it.

A month later, Schumer (D-N.Y.) and fellow Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) and Christopher Murphy (D-Conn.) announced Senate legislation that would take the land sale off the table without requiring such a study.

In late June 2015, Schumer introduced legislation that he authored that would block the island’s sale and require a report on how to transfer the property so it could be preserved.

"The idea of selling it to the highest bidder, to throw away an entire ecosystem and a whole piece of Long Island history…and generating revenue for another facility in Kansas doesn’t help Long Island," Schumer said at the time.

One winter’s day in 2019...

Zeldin stopped Johnson on a street in Munich, Germany, during the annual Munich Security Conference from Feb. 15-17, one of several times he said he approached Johnson on the issue.

The congressman said he identified Plum Island as the top priority for New York, in part because he said doing so would help his pitch, but also because of its ecological sensitivity.

"It got to the point where he [Johnson] would start the conversation by saying, ‘I know, I know, I know. We have to do something about Plum Island,’" Zeldin said.

About a year ago...

Zeldin said he learned that Johnson, whose representatives did not respond to requests for comment, did not oppose the legislation for philosophical reasons, but because Homeland Security did not want to be stuck with a piece of the island.

And days before Christmas 2020...

At the 2019 Congressional Ball on Dec. 12, Zeldin’s wife, Diana, buttonholed Johnson while on line at the coat check.

Fast-forward a few weeks ago...

Zeldin said he received a call from Schumer asking him to make another run at Johnson as the appropriations process drew near.

Zeldin said he approached Johnson, who said he wanted to help, but that the opposition was coming from Homeland Security officials.

A senior White House administration official speaking on background said Zeldin reached out to help him make his case to the career professionals at the Department of Homeland Security.

"He had to use all of his skills to persuade the professionals on the merits and actually make the case why privatizing the island is bad public policy," the administration official said. "It was on the strength of his argument that he got it done."

The final provision states that the island be transferred from the Department of Homeland Security as a single asset.

A letter dated Nov. 16...

Shows how the effort to save Plum Island came not only from both sides of the political aisle and from both houses of Congress, but also from both sides of the Long Island Sound.

The 840-acre Plum Island is just a mile and a...

The 840-acre Plum Island is just a mile and a half off Orient Point where the open Atlantic meets Long Island Sound. Currents run strong in the Gut, drawing schools of small bait fish which in turn attract striped bass, squid, bluefish and seals. Even whales and sea turtles have been seen. But its locale, at the head of Long Island Sound, has also played a strategic part in history.  Credit: Newsday/Mark Harrington

The letter to House and Senate members of the Financial Services and General Government Subcommittee urges them to leave the Plum Island provision in the spending bill. It was signed by Zeldin, Schumer, Gillibrand), Blumenthal, Murphy and U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney (D-Conn.).

"By preventing the sale, we can take away the threat of private development, while continuing to work with our colleagues to craft an alternative, long-term path for this precious resource that allows it to remain with the federal government or a responsible entity for the purposes of conservation, education, and research," the letter states.

Another push for passage...

Came during negotiations in late 2020 to hammer out the multitrillion-dollar federal spending bill. Schumer said he asked to pair the Plum Island bill with legislation authorizing the new animal research laboratory in Kansas. The negotiation — made during what is colloquially known as the "ash and trash" portion of the appropriations process — was a top priority in Schumer’s negotiation with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), he said.

"When we saw an opportunity to balance the GOP’s asks on the Kansas site, we seized it and we saved Plum Island," Schumer said in a statement. "Many Long Island community and environmental groups and members of the federal delegation, including Rep. Zeldin and Senators Gillibrand, Blumenthal and Murphy, have been working with us on this issue for a long time and helped achieve this wonderful result."