CHATHAM – Town officials were scheduled to travel to Washington, D.C. on Wednesday to testify in a House of Representatives subcommittee hearing on legislation clarifying the boundary of the Monomoy National Wildlife Refuge.
Town Manager Jill Goldsmith, Selectman Seth Taylor and Natural Resources Director Robert Duncanson were to attend the hearing of the House Committee on Natural Resources Subcommittee on Federal Lands, which is reviewing House bill 1157, filed by Rep. William Keating at the urging of the town and state officials.
The legislation affirms the historical western boundary of the refuge as the lands above mean low water. Under the Monomoy Comprehensive Conservation Plan (CCP) approved last year, the western boundary was extended to include between 3,000 and 4,000 acres of waters and submerged land in Nantucket Sound.
That was the first time since the refuge was established in 1944 that the Nantucket Sound boundary was recognized, town officials say. All previous references, including the 1969 Wilderness Area legislation and the 1988 master plan, refer to the refuge as extending to low water.
“The bill does nothing more than confirm what has been understood and accepted as the western boundary of the refuge for more than 70 years,” reads a statement Taylor was scheduled to deliver to the subcommittee Wednesday. “This bill is needed to permanently correct an egregious and illegal taking of submerged lands west of Monomoy Island from the Commonwealth of Massachusetts by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.”
The boundary in Nantucket Sound that the agency is asserting represents the western limits of the refuge was meant to be the exterior limit. Because the shore of Monomoy shifts constantly, the limit was meant to include in the refuge any lands above mean low water that might emerge, according to Taylor's statement. It point out that until the recent CCP, the refuge was referred to as encompassing about 3,000 acres. With the agency's “reinterpreted” boundary, it started characterizing the refuge as consisting of more than 7,000 acres, says Taylor's statement.
“If FWS's unsubstantiated claim is allowed to stand, it would forever cede jurisdiction and management authority over the submerged lands and open waters of an area owned by the commonwealth and cared for by our town to an agency with insufficient resources or understanding to properly manage them,” the statement reads.
Jack Clarke of Mass Audubon said while the agency won't be testifying at the hearing, it has sent a letter, also signed by other state and national conservation organizations, asking the subcommittee not to approve the bill. The groups believe approval of the legislation would set a “dangerous precedent” signaling Congress' willingness to turn over federal conservation lands to states.
The legislation would not give away half of the refuge or threaten protection over wildlife and other resources, Taylor's statement reads. The town and state have cared for and managed the resources within the disputed area for decades and will continue to do so if the bill passes.
Chatham officials also planned to meet with Keating and Massachusetts Senators Edward Markey and Elizabeth Warren prior to the hearing, according to an email from Goldsmith.