CHATHAM – Town officials are hoping to convince the chairman of the House Committee on Natural Resources to approve legislation to clarify the western boundary of the Monomoy National Wildlife Refuge.
In a March 6 letter, Town Manager Jill Goldsmith asked Republican Congressman Rob W. Bishop of Utah to support House Bill 1157, filed by Ninth Massachusetts District Representative William Keating at the request of the town. Approval of the bill will not take land away from the refuge, Goldsmith wrote, but would ensure protection of resources in the waters and submerged lands west of Monomoy by the town and state, as has been the case historically.
Town officials hope the legislation will end a nearly year-long dispute with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service regarding Monomoy's western boundary. In the refuge's comprehensive conservation plan approved last April, the service asserted jurisdiction over between 3,000 and 4,000 acres of water and submerged land in Nantucket Sound. With a few exceptions – including banning of mussel harvesting in the area – the agency has said traditional activities, such as shell and fin fishing, can continue, but town and state officials worry that could change at any time.
Local officials say they've historically managed the resources in the disputed area and that the assertion by the federal agency is an illegal taking. Attorney General Maura Healey announced last year that she will take the federal government to court over the issue.
Keating's legislation seeks to clarify the western boundary, reading “The Congress finds that the United States did not acquire any right, title, or interest in or to submerged lands in Nantucket Sound or the waters above such submerged lands as a result of the taking described in United States v. 3,000 Acres of Land, Misc. Civil Action No. 6340 (D. Mass., dated June 1, 1944).” The latter reference is to the action that created the refuge in 1944. The bill was referred to Bishop's committee.
It has been understood since then that the disputed area was not part of the refuge, Goldsmith stated in her letter to Bishop. During that time the town and state have “sustainably managed fisheries, provided sensible public access, and exercised sound stewardship” over the area. Resource in the disputed territory “historically played, and continue to play, a vital role in the community fabric and economic of Chatham, Cape Cod and the Commonwealth.”
Goldsmith rejects the assertion of some groups, including Mass Audubon, that the legislation is an attempt to take land away from the refuge.
Audubon and other groups have also expressed concern that the bill could be used to return other refuge land to states, given the anti-regulatory atmosphere in the current Congress. Town officials say they also hope to work with U.S. Interior Department officials to amend the comprehensive conservation plan to remove the disputed section, thus negating the need for the legislation. They have indicated that the Trump administration's drive to shrink the federal government could work in their favor in this instance.
Town officials plan to travel to Washington, D.C. to lobby for passage of the legislation or an administrative solution to the boundary dispute. According to Selectmen Seth Taylor, a date for the trip has not yet been set.