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Letter to Secretary McHugh and Secretary Salazar


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Today, overlooking Constitution Island in Cornwall, U.S. Senator Charles E. Schumer launched his plan for the U.S. Army and Department of Defense (DoD), which owns Constitution Island in Orange and Putnam County, to transfer the island to the Department of the Interior (DOI) so that tourists can enjoy the historic parkland and scenic recreation trails year-round. Currently, under West Point University's control, the Revolutionary era landmark is only open to tourists and visitors approximately two months each year. Despite the limited availability for tourists to enjoy Constitution Island's 200 acres of trails and scenery, over 5,000 bikers, hikers, and sightseers from over 35 states and 19 countries flock to the island each year, which demonstrates the unleashed tourist potential of the Island.

Schumer said that under the Antiquities Act, the president's administration has the authority to protect national historic sites in the public interest. Schumer believes that his plan for West Point to transfer the destination to DOI will allow for the island to remain open longer and increase tourism revenue in Orange County, Putnam County, and throughout the entire Hudson Valley. Once the island is opened year-round and the historic structures are available to the public, the City of Cold Spring has plans to open their own ferry access to the Island from the Putnam County side of the Island, whereas currently all tourists must be escorted by ferry via West Point. The Island also has the potential to be connected to the Hudson Fjord Trail, allowing hikers, bikers and tourists alike to experience everything Constitution Island has to offer.

"The federal government should give visitors of Constitution Island the right to enjoy this historic site more than a couple months out of the year," said Schumer. "I am calling on the Department of Defense and the U.S. Military Academy at West Point to transfer control of Constitution Island to the Department of the Interior, which would unlock the massive potential for tourism development at this beautiful Hudson Valley landmark. Constitution Island has no shortage of attractions, with biking and hiking trails, kayaks, and historic landmarks alike, and could generate millions of dollars in tourism revenue for Orange County once it is open for business year-round. Even though West Point can only open Constitution Island to the public less than 60 days a year due to manpower constraints, over 5,000 visitors still come to Orange County to see the island's gorgeous gardens, trails, and homes. If West Point transfers ownership of the island to the Department of the Interior, which is better equipped to maintain and promote the 280-acre property, more tourists and revenue will flow through the Hudson Valley as a whole."

"Constitution Island is such a wonderful destination for tourists and for recreation in our area," said Assemblywoman Sandy Galef. "I am very pleased that Senator Schumer is working on plans that would help to improve accessibility year round to this wonderful asset in the Hudson Valley. There are historic structures on the island that need attention. I am hopeful that with the success of Senator Schumer's plan, these much-needed improvements will be able to come to fruition, preserving and increasing the value and attractiveness of this wonderful historical asset even more."

"The initiative being offered by Senator Schumer is a most exciting and wonderful plan for Constitution Island," said Betsy Pugh, Chair of the Constitution Island Association. "The real winners will be the visitors and residents of the Hudson River Valley who will have access to a very special place most days of the year."

"I think the plan to allow increased access to Constitution Island by foot traffic and other means is a fantastic idea, and one that I certainly support," said Seth Gallagher, Mayor of the Village of Cold Spring. "I also believe it would great for area residents and visitors as well. Currently, this important historic site is largely inaccessible to the public, and as a result an important part of our local and national history is less understood and appreciated than it should be. I have fond memories of growing up here 30 years ago and hiking out to Constitution Island from Cold Spring. It would be wonderful if we can bring that type of access back."

Schumer was joined in his push for control of Constitution Island to be transferred to DOI by Executive Director of the Constitution Island Association, Richard de Koster; Trustees of the Constitution Island Association; Assemblywoman Sandy Galef; as well as representatives from Scenic Hudson. The precise number of days that Constitution Island is open to the public varies each year, but on average it is less than 60 days annually. In his letter to U.S. Army Secretary John McHugh and Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar, Schumer noted that there is recent precedent for his request that the Army transfer ownership of Constitution Island to DOI. President Obama recently advocated a transfer of Fort Monroe in Virginia to establish a new National Monument and a shared management structure was established between the Commerce and Interior Departments to create the Rose Atoll Marine National Monument in the American Samoa. Schumer believes these transfers could serve as a model for DOI's future oversight of Constitution Island, which could allow more tourists to gain accessibility to the historic landmark. In addition, the Department of Interior has unique expertise in promoting tourism, protecting parks and preserving and restoring historic landmarks, like the Warner home, that Constitution Island requires and Department of Defense simply cannot prioritize.

Before West Point's heightened security after September 11, 2001, visitors would flock to Constitution Island by the boatload. The packed tours departing on Wednesdays and Thursdays from South Dock at West Point brought about 200 passengers a week during the May through October season. Last year, the third year in which the centerpiece of the site -- the Warner home -- was shut down for repairs and restoration, the island attracted only 20 to 40 visitors each week, the low numbers compounded by West Point's tighter security resulting in closure to tourists. Now visitors to Constitution Island are limited and must plan and book in advance. While Schumer acknowledges and appreciates West Point's need for increased security, he noted that this further highlights why Department of Interior is a more appropriate entity to control the site.

The 280-acre island is home to the ruins of Revolutionary War fortifications, and is well known for the Great Chain that was placed across the Hudson during the Revolutionary War. Visitors also travel to Constitution Island to see the home constructed in 1836, which housed the Warner family and had been functioning as a house museum until its closure three years ago.

Schumer noted that the transfer of the island's control from one federal department to another is constitutional under the Antiquities Act and would help spur tourism for the Hudson Valley. The Supreme Court has suggested that it is acceptable to switch management of federal lands among federal agencies. In the Court's decision regarding the Channel Islands National Monument, the Court said that the Antiquities Act could mean that the "land is shifted from one federal use, and perhaps from one federal managing agency, to another." A 1980 opinion from the Department of Justice's Office of Legal Counsel appears to indicate that the President may have some flexibility in choosing the managers of post-1933 monuments. Others also assert that the authority of the President under the Antiquities Act carries with it discretion to choose the managing agency.

A copy of Sen. Schumer's letter appears below:

Dear Secretary McHugh and Secretary Salazar,

I write to you today to urge you to explore the feasibility of transferring the National Historic Landmark known as "Constitution Island," a unit of the Department of Army under the management of the United States Military Academy at West Point, to the United States Department of Interior for the purpose of preserving and enhancing the public's ability to enjoy this national treasure in the Hudson River Valley. As you may know, the island is most famous for the Great Chain that was placed across the Hudson River during the Revolutionary War from 1778 to 1782 and the Warner family who lived on the Island during the 19th century. The Warner House and ruins of the Revolutionary War fortifications are primary points of interest for Island visitors. Moreover, the Island's 280 acres are covered with hiking trails and pristine natural landscapes that are currently underutilized as historic tourism attractions. The Constitution Island Association, a preservation organization founded in 1916, acts a caretaker in conjunction with West Point to preserve and protect the history and traditions of this unique American site. However, it has become obvious that a greater federal preservation role is needed, as the public has very limited access to the island and historic structures are increasingly in need of rehabilitation. Therefore, I request that your two departments consider exercising the President's authority under Section 2 of the Antiquities Act to establish a new role for the Department of Interior in the preservation and enhancement of this great historic and natural beauty.

Sitting in the heart of the Hudson River Valley, a location that helped fuel the American industrial revolution and gave inspiration to some of the great artists in American history, Constitution Island has long been a gem of nature, ripe for tourism development. My local constituents have urged for better access to the Island and new programming so that activities like kayaking, historic tours, hiking trails, and bike paths could be introduced as attractions to promote greater public involvement with the history of the site. Despite the great efforts on behalf of West Point, as an academic agency within the Department of Defense, the tools in their toolkit are very limited in terms of historic preservation and access.

For example, tourists must currently board the ferry at West Point to travel from the mainland to the island. Upon arrival, visitors must travel through military security, a process more onerous than most national monuments or parks. Additionally, under West Points purview, Constitution Island is only open a fraction of the year, less than 60 days in total. The Association has also been trying to stabilize and renovate some of the historic structures in conjunction with the Academy, but again, I do not believe this is the proper role of the Department of Army and strongly urge the Department of Interior begin investigation of these issues. Despite these challenges, the Island currently receives over 5,000 visitors per year from 40 states and 19 countries.

There is recent precedent for this request. As you know, the President recently advocated a transfer of Fort Monroe in Virginia to establish a new National Monument and a shared management structure was established between the Commerce and Interior Departments to create the Rose Atoll Marine National Monument in the American Samoa. It is conceivable that these examples could be models for this request.

I appreciate your attention to this request. Please do not hesitate to contact my office if you have any questions.

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