Plum Island from above.

Plum Island from above. Credit: Kevin P. Coughlin

There has always been an air of mystery about Plum Island. It's been promulgated for decades by popular culture and myth. But now, with its high-security federal animal disease research center winding down its mission, the time seems right to open up the 822-acre island to the general public and move toward making it a national monument.

In early May, Rep. Nick LaLota, whose 1st Congressional District includes the federally-owned island in the Town of Southold, asked President Joe Biden to support his bill to make Plum Island a national monument or designate it as such immediately under the presidential powers granted by the Antiquities Act of 1906. It’s an overall good idea. Either approach makes sense. Failing to establish a clear-cut future for the fabled island would be unacceptable and a disservice to both the present and the past.

LaLota says turning Plum Island into a national monument would protect it as a natural habitat for rare plants and 228 bird species, including some that are federally endangered or threatened, such as piping plovers and roseate terns. It would also preserve its cultural heritage as a previous home for Native Americans before a lighthouse and the U.S. Army’s Fort Terry post were built there in the 19th century.


In 2008, federal officials said they intended to sell Plum Island at auction to the highest bidder. Congress scrapped that plan in 2020 at the urging of then-Rep. Lee Zeldin. Local opponents had feared the island would go to private developers intent on building luxury waterfront homes rather than serve as a public space. In 2013, businessman Donald Trump expressed interest in buying Plum Island for a golf course.

In 2015, the federal government decided to move the research center, overseen by the Department of Homeland Security, to Kansas. The long process of decommissioning the aging center is expected to start sometime in the next year or so. But what to do with Plum Island has been debated for years, and is rooted in its remarkable history. 

Much of the mystery surrounding Plum Island has to do with its role as a federal laboratory. Since 1954, it has been the nation’s premier center for studying foreign “transboundary” animal diseases, including foot-and-mouth disease and African swine fever, and their potential impact on America’s $1.5 trillion livestock and food industries. The laboratory also has studied various vaccines and diagnostic tests intended to control possible animal disease outbreaks.


Plum Island's closed-door research wasn’t open to the media until 1992, amid public speculation of what was going on there. Until then, much of the news coverage portrayed Plum Island as an ominous place.

For example, a 1971 New York Times article called it “a Devil’s Island for the deadliest animal disease germs known to man,” detailing its round-the-clock security to keep different strains of bacteria and viruses from escaping. In popular culture, Plum Island took its dubious place among other Long Island myths, including a quick mention in “The Silence of the Lambs” novel as a potential relocation place for serial killer and cannibal Hannibal Lecter. Plum Island also had been discussed as a possible site for other research, including as a testing site for preventing hackers from breaking into the national electric grid through cyberattack. 

Because it’s been generally off-limits for years, Plum Island is a virtual stranger to Long Islanders, but there’s plenty to pique the interest of curious day-trippers. The Plum Island lighthouse built in 1869 and the remnants of Fort Terry are on the National Register of Historic Sites. Making the island a national monument would place it on par with the likes of the Statue of Liberty, Mount Rushmore, the Lincoln Memorial, Little Big Horn Battlefield, Muir Woods, Devil's Tower, and Manhattan’s African Burial Grounds and Stonewall Inn.

LaLota’s proposal is backed by environmental groups that have joined together in the Preserve Plum Island Coalition. It echoes similar sentiment expressed previously by other top New York and Connecticut elected officials, and the Town of Southold. The White House should sign on soon to this worthy idea.

Proponents say Plum Island could become a place for wildlife sanctuaries, historic preservation sites with guided tours, and beaches with pristine water bearing virtually no signs of human-made pollution. A slower option would be seeking national park status, but LaLota said a national monument designation would embrace the same goals within a 12-to-24-month timetable for completion.

We believe making Plum Island a national monument is the right thing to do, even if that means its mystery fades away.

MEMBERS OF THE EDITORIAL BOARD are experienced journalists who offer reasoned opinions, based on facts, to encourage informed debate about the issues facing our community.

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