Environmentalists had been hoping that the 1879 discovery of a woolly mammoth’s remains on federally owned Plum Island would be enough to stop the land from going to public auction in the future. Last week, however, the Southold Historical Society discredited a late-19th-century article describing the discovery of the woolly mammoth on Plum Island, saying the mammoth was found in Massachusetts.
It had been thought that the discovery of the mammoth bones had been largely forgotten when Congress voted in 2009 to eventually close the island’s aging Plum Island Animal Disease Center, where scientists research animal diseases and develop methods to stop the spread of disease. The federal government plans to build a new $1 billion National Bio- and Agro-Defense Facility in Kansas and sell 840-acre Plum Island to the highest private bidder. In preparation, it commissioned the General Services Administration to conduct an environmental impact statement, which recommended that the sale proceed.
Something in the 408-page report released last summer caught the attention of Robert DeLuca, president of the Group for the East End, which opposes the island’s private sale for development, as does U.S. Representative Tim Bishop, who last month introduced a “Save, Don’t Sell Plum Island” bill. The bill would permanently separate the future use of the island from the National Bio- and Agro-Defense Facility and preserve the island’s biodiversity by keeping it for research and conservation.
“As described in the Predictive Model, the previous discovery of a mammoth skeleton on the west end of Plum Island indicates that the island could contain prehistoric remains that range in age from Paleo-Indian to the time of European contact,” the report stated in a passage about the island’s history.
Mr. DeLuca said he asked the GSA to look into the source of the citation. When the final environmental impact statement was released this June, he said, the citation had not been expanded upon. So he contacted the media.
As a result, The Suffolk Times first published a story confirming the woolly mammoth discovery with the GSA, which cited an 1879 article from The Long Islander newspaper. The article reported that the mammoth had been found beneath what had been a 50-foot-high and 150-foot-long sand dune. According to the account, the dune was eroded away, revealing a skull and more than 7 feet of backbone. The GSA said it has no record of what became of the skeleton.
Geoffrey Fleming, director of the Southold Historical Society, said that when he read the account, there were several red flags that told him the discovery wasn’t on Plum Island, New York.
“From the first line about there being a lifesaving station—that never existed,” he said, explaining that the historical society is writing a book about the history of Plum Island. “There was a station that was build on Plum Island in Newburyport, Massachusetts.”
He also pointed to an area called “Brothers Beach” where the mammoth was supposed to be found, and said that there is no such place on the New York island, but that there is one on the Massachusetts island.
“It seems The Long Islander grabbed the story and neglected to say ‘Massachusetts,’” Mr. Fleming said. He added that while there could be some prehistoric treasures on New York’s Plum Island, he hasn’t come across any mention of such findings in his research.
Just last week, the the Daily News of Newburyport reported that the mammoth was indeed found in Massachusetts based on research done at the Newburyport Public Library. The article in question, found in the library’s archives, was originally printed in The Newburyport Herald, a paper that was shuttered in 1915, and reprinted almost word for word in a few different newspapers, including The Long Islander, according to the Daily News of Newburyport.
Mr. DeLuca said that the GSA should have been looking into this from the get-go instead of letting others do the research.
“This matter should have been fully addressed by the GSA and not left to the speculation of all the rest of us to try and figure out what was or wasn’t there,” Mr. DeLuca said. “That is the definition of a poorly prepared impact statement.”
Patrick Sclafani, the public affairs officer for the GSA, said its document “takes into account hundreds of comments from the public and analyzes the potential impacts of the sale of Plum Island on human health and the environment.
“If the island is sold as contemplated in current law, state and local regulatory agencies will have the authority to conduct additional reviews and implement zoning and conservation measures to oversee development on the island,” Mr. Sclafani said.
He said the GSA’s impact statement is meant to be used as a tool by Southold Town, which will have jurisdiction over the island when it is privately sold and when planning the future of the island. He said the government will continue to ensure all environmental concerns are reviewed and considered before the sale.
Southold Town Board members recently approved zoning for the island, which will create research and conservation districts so as to prevent commercial development.
The research district, 125 acres, will allow for research labs with multiple buildings in a campus-style development, as well as museums housed in existing designated historic landmarks. The conservation district, 350 acres, will contain nature preserves, public parks, educational facilities and museums housed in existing designated historic landmarks. Officials in Southold Town have been talking about the possibility of research or conservation organizations using or developing the facilities at Plum Island.
Both districts would permit solar energy generation and accessory structures, including sleeping quarters, apartments, dormitories and a cafeteria for personnel, and other necessary infrastructure by special exception from the town’s Zoning Board of Appeals.