Selectmen Pressure Keating Over Stalled Refuge Bill; Congressman Fires Back

By: Alan Pollock

The Monomoy National Wildlife Refuge.  FILE PHOTO

CHATHAM Selectmen are faulting U.S. Rep. William Keating, D–9th District, for not doing enough to promote his legislation to reverse the controversial land claim by the Monomoy National Wildlife Refuge. Keating is defending his actions, saying he has done all he can to advance the bill in a Republican-controlled Congress.

On Monday, the board of selectmen issued a “call to action” to citizens in the form of a soon-to-be-published op-ed letter urging residents to contact Keating’s office to voice support for H.R. 1157, the bill Keating himself filed in February 2017.

“We’ve been sitting here with a bill just sitting in the House without any action for quite a long time,” Selectman Shareen Davis said. She and board member Jeffrey Dykens comprise a subcommittee working on the refuge boundary dispute, and Davis said they have reached out to Keating repeatedly to ask him for a meeting to discuss the bill’s status.

“We are asking people to voice their concerns to his office over his inaction,” she said.

“We need some push from our voters here in town,” Dykens said. He accused Keating of “listening to the sweet siren song” of national environmental groups that oppose the legislation.

Last March, a group of seven environmental groups penned a letter to the state's Congressional delegation urging them to reject Keating’s bill. The groups argued that they are “deeply concerned about the threat to public lands across American that this and other Congressional legislation poses,” and worry that the bill supports “a radical agenda to turn over control of federal public resources to states and local governments where protected lands and their resources would lose federal protections and be quickly auctioned off to the highest bidder.” An extreme example of that agenda, it noted, was the occupation of an Oregon wildlife refuge by armed militiamen in 2017.

The bill would redraw the wildlife refuge’s western boundary to exclude around 4,000 acres of sand flats and submerged lands that were claimed in the refuge’s 2015 Comprehensive Conservation Plan. For centuries, those submerged lands were owned by the state, and jointly managed by the state and the town. In addition to being a critical environmental resource, the flats are important to recreational and commercial fishermen and shellfishermen, who would be subject to federal rules when they operate in the area.

Davis said she believes that pressure is the reason the bill has not advanced to a full House vote.

“We feel that he has been somewhat quiet in this because of the pressure from national – and I said 'national' – environmental groups that have voiced their opposition to the bill,” she said. “We’ve just been hearing crickets from our representative. He’d rather be yielding to the pressure from the national groups over his local constituent groups,” Davis said.

Responding to those who say he changed his position under pressure from environmentalists, the congressman was indignant.

“They’ve got their facts dead wrong,” he said in a telephone interview with The Chronicle Monday. Keating said he can’t imagine why people would think he would draft and file a bill and then not actively seek a vote before the full House.

“We’ve been doing that since the very beginning,” he said. The legislation was favorably reported out by the Republican-led House Committee on Natural Resources, and now, “it’s up to Republican leadership to advance the bill,” he said.

Keating acknowledged the pressure applied by the environmental groups, pressure that they also applied to other Massachusetts lawmakers.

“But in spite of that, we still put it in because I do favor having the Commonwealth be the steward of the property. I think it’s the right thing to do,” he said.

Keating argued that there are hundreds or thousands of other bills waiting for a full vote, and he blamed the GOP leadership.

“The dysfunction is no surprise to anyone, and they’re just avoiding bills like this,” that require floor time to debate, he said.

H.R. 1157 is among 217 bills referred to the natural resources committee in this session, only half of which were debated by the committee. The legislation was reported out favorably from that committee in December, along with 49 other bills. Only 26 of those bills went to the House floor for a vote at the direction of the Republican Speaker of the House. Most of those bills passed the House, but only seven have been signed into law.

Speaking at Monday’s board meeting, Selectman Dean Nicastro said that Keating needs to more actively lobby for a full vote.

“He has to step up to the plate and do it,” Nicastro said. If he doesn’t, “I personally believe we should start working with the Republican majority in the House,” as long as they continue to hold the majority, he said. It may be advisable for the town to seek out help from a Republican congressman in Maine or New York who might be sympathetic to the town’s plight, Nicastro said.

“That ought to be our next step if we don’t get any help from our own congressman,” he said.

The “call to action” document posted to the town website Tuesday provides the contact information for Keating’s office and a sample script for those wishing to call or email him. Officials are also asking residents to use social media to get the word out about the legislation.