“Just watch your step,” my government escort said. “Because sometimes out here, you find little tortoises.”
Here is Plum Island’s greatest secret: It’s beautiful. The landscape, wild and untamed, is a taste of what the rest of Long Island must have looked like before all the people came. All it took to preserve it were a few buildings, on a few small lots around the island’s 840 acres, with enough contagious pathogens inside to scare away the world.
But life abounds. Along the rocky northern shore, where purple beach blossoms line the road, an emergency medical technician out for a walk in the days before my visit came upon an injured red-tailed hawk. Other workers have spotted bald eagles. I saw a seal poke its head out of the water, one of hundreds that stop at the island in cold weather on the way to their breeding grounds. And nature, over the years, has been reclaiming territory.
At the island’s eastern tip, down a bumpy gravel stretch of road, is a cluster of heavy concrete fortifications that once held gun batteries to defend the east coast from air and sea attack. Now they’re overgrown with weeds and brush.
Another look at the horizon offered a hint of Plum Island’s possible futures. To one side, Gardiners Island, five privately owned square miles off the coast of East Hampton with their own history of development intrigue. To another, Fishers Island, a playground for the wealthy with a military background much like Plum Island’s. Finally, in the distance, Little Gull Island, a tiny outcropping that was government-owned for the moment – though the GSA was on the case.
“The lighthouse sits on an acre of land,” one of the GSA guys said. “So we’re going to sell that.”
We stopped at another gun battery, where a brick room once used to house ammunition now held a drum, marked “non-hazardous waste.” Poison ivy lined the path in and out, and when we emerged, we all stopped to pick ticks off our pant legs.
It was the ticks, later, that nagged at me. When you’re on an island rumored to be the birthplace of Lyme disease, little things can unsettle. So can bigger things, like the ghostly block of a structure, near a spot called Pine Point, that once held the island’s biological weapons lab. First built to store mines, it was vacant now, its entrances sealed shut and its cinder-block walls covered in peeling paint and vines. A barbed-wire fence ringed its perimeter. Fifty feet away was the beach, long and empty. We stood on a gun fortification and took it all in.
“This could all be yours,” someone mumbled.
A place like Plum Island, though, is not disposed of easily. In the months after my visit, the funding for the Kansas lab dried up and talk of Plum Island’s sale went quiet – though the real estate listings remain. (My magazine story dried up, too; not enough conflict, the editor said.) There were also questions about the island’s real worth. Optimists in the government had floated sums of $100 million. A real estate agent told me he’d guess more like $40 million. Let’s say you build a house there, he said. Would you want your kid digging in the sand?
But maybe the island’s value lies beyond money. Much of Long Island, after all, was empty a century ago. Since then the wide roads and housing grids have spread ever-eastward, over woods and potato fields and most everything else in their path. In Southold, a few miles from Plum Island’s shores, real estate offices tout mansions priced in the millions of dollars and undeveloped lots for almost as much.
In context, 840 acres of wilderness – even 840 acres of wilderness with a carcass incinerator – begin to look precious.
“Is everything really reduced to the marketplace?” Bob DeLuca, an East End activist, asked me. “Is everything just always for sale? Is everything always at a price that somebody can buy it if they have enough money? Or are there some things that we’re going to step back and say, enough?”
Perhaps Anthrax Island is an odd place to take that stand. But from the shoreline near the old weapons lab, as a breeze blows off the bay and a family of geese edges into the water, it looks like the best place we have left.
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