The Future of Plum Island, Donald Trump and the Woolly Mammoth

Mickey Paraskevas Mammoth cartoon
Cartoon by Mickey Paraskevas

For the past seven years, there has been a tug-of-war about Plum Island, the 840-acre island that sits off the tip of Orient Point.

At the present time, and since 1954 when it was founded, the Island has been a place where they study animals and their diseases, hoping to find cures. Now there are many more people in the area. It’s not like it was in 1954 when nobody was around. And so many people today, particularly powerful people, living in the Hamptons and the North Fork, want this research lab gone. Yes, the lab has done extensive research into foot-and-mouth disease. Yes, they have studied various tick-borne diseases. And yes, workers coming to the island have to go through a sterile debugging procedure ending with the putting on and zipping up of protective clothing, and nobody else is allowed. But wasn’t there a time back in the 1960s when a deer, infected, swam to the mainland where with his animal disease center tags still on him, got rounded up in Orient and returned home? Isn’t it time for the lab to go?

That’s not what the people who work there, about 400 of them, want. Almost all of them come to work every day by ferryboat from Connecticut and the North Fork towns across the water. If the disease center were to be shut down, they’d lose their jobs. Among those fighting to keep the lab here now is the Town Supervisor of Southold.

The fact is that although this battle is still going on and the animals and workers are still there, the outcome seems to have been already determined. Congress voted in 2009 to abandon Plum Island, make it surplus property, sell it to the highest bidder, and move everything to a new lab to be built at Kansas State University. Bidding for the facility went out. And the bids came in so high that it could not be built. So the government announced plans to close the disease center and sell the island in 2019. But for now, the lab on Plum Island lingers on.

These are therefore desperate times. What happens next?

One of my best friends is Andy Sabin, who lives in Amagansett. He raises ducks, geese, snakes and tortoises among many other creatures. But he has lots of room on his property, because he is a very rich man, and besides the mansion there are many acres. Andy takes teams of people out at night sometimes to look for creatures that come out at that time. He is an environmentalist of epic proportion, and because he is also rich, he can do something about it. Ten years ago, he founded the South Fork Natural History Museum in Bridgehampton. He’s still the Chairman of that nonprofit. He provides the majority of the funding for it. But in addition to that, it is a fair thing to say that Andy has successfully shaped a good portion of the development of eastern Long Island. For example, in the 1980s, when he first heard of a proposal to develop a giant shopping mall just west of downtown Riverhead, he asked me about it. I told him what I knew, that it would be called Tanger Mall and would have more than 100 retail stores.

“Do you know the Tangers?” he asked me.

I told him I did.

“Well, they are going to have a fight on their hands,” Andy said. “And I have the means to back it up.”

I gave him the contact information I had for Steve Tanger in Southampton. Six months later, the project was going ahead. But Tanger would donate nearly half the land as a nature preserve. It was, Andy told me, a win-win situation. And he now counted Steve Tanger as a friend.

Andy stepped in with his clout to stop or modify many other developments around here. Often, as a project would be proceeding through a planning stage, it would be discovered that an endangered creature had been found on the property. Usually it was Eastern Tiger Salamanders. They are in danger, but apparently in abundance enough for Andy to find with his team on their night searches. This has happened half a dozen times, most recently on the Bridgehampton–Sag Harbor Turnpike where such a creature was found in the woods where LIPA hoped to build a power sub-station.

Developers charged that Andy kept these salamanders in his pocket and would place them about when he got to these sites. But no one ever offered any proof. It was just the very sort of rumor you would expect from a prospective developer.

What’s Andy got to do with Plum Island? Nothing, I think. But then there is this.

In the battle to and fro about the island’s future, it became necessary two years ago for a draft environmental impact study to be produced by government officials. It came out last October, over 500 pages in length. I presume some people read it. But nobody made any profound commentary until August 6, when it was announced that on page so and so in this report, there is the statement that the skull and bones of an extinct woolly mammoth had been found on Plum Island way back in 1879.

Plum Island was saved! Woolly mammoth bones would put an absolute halt to this plan to move the laboratory off the island. It was now sacred ground, a place where for years to come archeologists who dig at the Egyptian pyramids would be out to dig on Plum Island. What else could be there? They’d come from all over.

Frankly, I hadn’t known that any woolly mammoth had ever been known to roam on Long Island. You hear about them farther north. Never down here. Long Island was founded during the ice age when glaciers rumbled through Canada and New England to finally come to a halt where the twin forks of Long Island are now. (There were two ice ages). These forks are the detritus of Canadian land pushed down when the ice melted. Is it possible that a panicked woolly mammoth, in the confusion, got lost from his herd and, trying to run across the front of the rumbling ice, got caught up in it, and got rolled over and over to finally become part of, well, Plum Island?

Could be. Or it could be Andy. I wouldn’t put it past him.

But there is another and even greater possibility about how a woolly mammoth got to Plum Island. Let us hark back to the early years of the Plum Island lab. In those years, perhaps scientists wanted to see if they could breed an oversized dog. They mated a Great Dane with a St. Bernard, observed the result, waited a year, then hooked the frisky young adult to their cables, wires and intravenous drips and went home to Southold on the ferry for the night.

The battle that ensued the next day was undoubtedly ferocious, with many casualties and many trees uprooted, but in the end, they gained the upper hand and killed the gruesome results of this experiment. Naturally, they would keep it hush-hush. They’d bury it out by the lighthouse on the western end of the island.

Recently, we learned of several new developments. For one thing, the Southold Historical Society says that there never was a woolly mammoth buried on Plum Island. Although it is in this report, the woolly mammoth the authors probably meant to refer to was one found buried on another island called Plum Island, off the coast of Massachusetts. It does not matter that the report’s source for this information about the bones came from a Huntington, Long Island newspaper article some years ago. The article never mentions what STATE their Plum Island was in. But if you read it carefully you can see that because of the location of a lighthouse, the name of a beach and other indicators, it is a Long Island reporter writing of a finding in Massachusetts.

How much did taxpayers pay for this report?

The other new development happened on August 27 at a Town Board meeting in Southold. The Board unanimously approved a resolution that changed the zoning on the island. Before the change, the whole island was not zoned at all. It was federally owned and exempt from local zoning. Chain-link fencing and barbed wire keep everybody out. Truth is, however, that only one fifth of the island is the Animal Disease center, while the rest of the island remains in its natural state, which includes wetlands, hills, sand dunes and, uh, beach plums.

If Plum Island were sold and the animals moved to Kansas, there was the possibility that the island would fall into private hands that would build condominiums all over it. Or it could fall into the hands of a billionaire who’d make it his private island, and only he and his friends would be allowed out there.

To prevent this, and to give the existing lab the best chance of remaining on Plum Island, the new law requires that in the future, one-fifth of the island be zoned for a laboratory of some sort, and three-fourths remain in its natural state forever. This new zoning is the island’s Golden Parachute.

The woolly mammoths await further developments.

As We Go to Press: Donald Trump has made a proposal to turn much of Plum Island into an exclusive private golf course. Who else intends to wade into this story?

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