Jul 14, 2023 — U.S. Customs and Border Protection is considering building a new border facility in the Thousand Islands to replace its current one on Wellesley Island. One candidate location is a place called Blind Bay, about halfway between the towns of Clayton and Alexandria Bay.
Local conservationists say Blind Bay is an environmental treasure, critical for aquatic life, and they’re trying to convince the government to select another site.
John Peach is the executive director of Save the River, a St. Lawrence River conservation organization founded in the 1970s. He grew up fishing in the Thousand Islands.
“I used to get in my little 10-foot aluminum boat, with a seven-and-a-half horsepower motor, and one of the things I loved to do the most was sneak away from my parents. [I] had my fishing pole, and I would come to Blind Bay,” Peach said on a visit to the bay late last month.
Now, Peach is leading a “Save Blind Bay” campaign in an effort to stop Customs and Border Protection (CBP) from building a new facility there.
CBP declined a request for an interview, but a spokesman said in an email that the department is “considering feasible properties in the local area for a potential U.S. Border Patrol Station re-location.”
According to an environmental assessment draft released last year, the new facility would replace the current Border Patrol Station on Wellesley Island.
It would be moderately larger, to house more agents, and would include dog kennels and snowmobile parking. And the plans call for water access — a dock, a boat ramp, and boat storage to patrol the St. Lawrence River and the border with Canada.
But Peach said Blind Bay is too shallow to be an ideal place for boats to access the river. He said Blind Bay is a classic example of what’s known as a “wet meadow,” where the trees and the vegetation come right down to the river
“The fish, the ducks, the reptiles, everything needs these wet meadows to spawn, to breed, to hide, to eat,” Peach said.
The shallow, muddy, vegetation-filled water is not great for boats, Peach said, but it is good for fish like the muskellunge, or “muskie,” a popular sport fish that can grow up to 5 feet in length and uses Blind Bay as a breeding ground.
“Due to development, there are fewer and fewer of these pristine spawning areas that are left, and this is a key one,” Peach said of the bay. He added that he believes the bay would have to be dredged to make the water deep enough for boats if the new facility were built here.
Lawmakers from both parties, including Sen. Chuck Schumer and Congresswoman Claudia Tenney, oppose the proposed Blind Bay facility. They’ve joined up with the Save Blind Bay campaign.
The conservationist effort also includes local residents and the Thousand Islands Land Trust. Last year, the land trust made a bold move. It bought almost 300 feet of Blind Bay’s shoreline.
Jake Tibbles is the trust’s executive director. “To site a 48,000-square foot industrial scale facility amongst single-family residential homes and a quiet part of the river, really the heart of the Thousand Islands, doesn’t align with any of the comprehensive plans or the local waterfront revitalization plans that these local municipalities have worked so hard on,” Tibbles said.
Even though the trust owns the land now, the government could still claim it in court through eminent domain. If a court did let CBP use the land, the community would be compensated, but Tibbles said that wouldn’t be enough.
“From our vantage point, you know, really, there’s no amount of money that the federal government could actually compensate the river community for the environmental treasure that would be really destroyed here,” Tibbles said.
Save Blind Bay is advocating that CBP use another site, the old Bonnie Castle Recreation Center in Alexandria Bay. That property is not right on the water, like Blind Bay is, but CBP could access the water at nearby state parks, about 10 minutes away by car.
The CBP spokesman said the department’s planning is currently “pre-decisional,” and that an Environmental Assessment will be completed and circulated to the public for review and comment.