CHATHAM – Federal legislation to limit the western boundary of the Monomoy National Wildlife Refuge to mean low water has been filed by Congressman William Keating.
Keating filed the legislation last Thursday. The bill is the same as one filed last fall and seeks to clarify the United States government's interest in the area west of the refuge. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service asserted authority over 3,000 to 4,000 acres of submerged lands in Nantucket Sound in the 15-year Comprehensive Conservation Plan for the refuge approved last year. Town and state officials called the move an illegal taking, claiming that the federal government had never before asserted ownership or regulatory jurisdiction over the area below mean low water, which the state and town have managed for decades.
Town and state officials are taking several tacks to try to curtail the federal government's authority over the area, out of concern that traditional fisheries and other activities could be prohibited.
“For decades the Fish and Wildlife Service recognized that the western boundary of the refuge as the mean low water line and the bill will simply clarify that boundary permanent,” Town Manager Jill Goldsmith said in a press release. “The town and Commonwealth remain committed to sustainable resource management as they have done for generations. We intend to visit Washington, D.C. in the near future to meet with congressional leaders to encourage their support for the bill.”
“Congressman Keating has worked continuously to bring all parties to the table in an effort to find a resolution for the boundary,” Keating's Communications Director and Counsel Lauren Amendolara McDermott said in an email. “He has confidence in the Commonwealth as the proper and responsible steward.”
Town officials also hope to work with Interior Department officials on an administrative solution to the dispute; they see the new administration as being more open to curtailing federal authority. Last week selectmen voted to support a $120,000 town meeting article to continue funding the efforts, chiefly through work with the Washington, D.C. firm of Pike Associates, which has represented the town's interests on the issue.
A third approach could be litigation. Attorney General Maura Healey informed the Interior Department late last year that the state intended to file a lawsuit in federal court to clarify the boundary issue.
Right before the legislation was filed, John J. Clarke, director of advocacy for Mass Audubon, wrote to Keating to urge him not to file the bill.
“We believe altering Monomoy's western boundary would expose wildlife and the fragile habitats upon which they depend, to new activities that may be incompatible with the refuge's mission to protect its biological integrity and environmental health,” Clarke wrote in the Feb. 16 letter. The dispute should be resolved “by the municipality and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service at Chatham Town Hall. This would both preserve the integrity of the refuge while maintaining and respecting the town-federal partnership which has worked for 72 years.”
“We wanted to go on record to indicate to him that we thought it best to continue to manage the refuge as it is now,” Clarke said Monday. Audubon will continue to urge Keating to pull the bill, especially if it gets “hijacked” by other interests looking to turn over control of federal conservation, national parks and other lands to states. The “unintended consequence” of the legislation “would be especially enticing if it emerged from a liberal state like Massachusetts,” the letter stated.
“Let me say that Bill Keating is a great congressman,” Clarke said. “We're going to need him to protect the Cape Cod National Seashore and continue to fund it. There's a lot on his agenda right now and he's going to need the environmental community to support him.”
The bill, H.R. 1157, did not have specific text attached to it as of Monday. It was referred to the House Committee on Natural Resources, which includes Massachusetts Fifth District Representative Niki Tsongas among its members. Tsongas has a summer home in Chatham.