CHATHAM – Federal legislation to settle a disputed boundary at the Monomoy National Wildlife Refuge has thrust the town town into the national political scene.
“We're part of the national dialog now,” said Selectman Seth Taylor, who testified on the bill last week before a House of Representatives subcommittee in Washington, D.C. last Wednesday. “This is in play at a level where they're really ripping each other up and going at it.”
The legislation goes to the heart of a deep divide between Democrats and Republicans: the control and stewardship over vast areas of federal lands throughout the nation, with Republicans and the Trump Administration pushing to cede control to state and local governments and Democrats girding against an erosion of protections for conservation lands.
In the eyes of local officials, the Monomoy legislation, filed by Rep. William Keating, isn't related to the bigger policy issue, but aims to curb what they see as federal overreach and an illegal land taking, Taylor said. In essence, the town and state contend that the low tide line marks the western boundary of the refuge, while the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, in the Comprehensive Conservation Plan approved last year, asserts that the Monomoy refuge encompasses an additional 3,000 to 4,000 acres of submerged land in Nantucket Sound.
Until the CCP, the agency never claimed jurisdiction over the intertidal area between Monomoy and an administrative boundary set up when the refuge was established in 1944. Any land above mean water between Monomoy and that western boundary was designated as part of the refuge, town officials assert, but there is no legal justification for inclusion of the subtidal areas within the refuge jurisdiction. The legislation states that the government “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 original taking.
In his testimony, Taylor said, he made it “abundantly clear” that the existing boundary was meant as an exterior limit of any land that may emerge above mean low water west of the refuge, and that it was not the town's intent to take land away from the refuge. The town and state have managed resources within the subtidal area since the 1944 taking – and decades before – and he said he detailed town and state resources devoted to regulating shellfishing, boating and other activities within the disputed area. Fish and Wildlife, he asserted, has “never had the resources to manage this area.”
Claims by Mass Audubon and other environmental organization that the legislation would reduce the refuge from more than 7,000 acres to 3,000 acres are wrong, Taylor said. “They don't know this issue at all,” he said of the groups which have opposed the legislation.
Nonetheless, Taylor said last week's hearing before the House Subcommittee on Federal Lands “was used as a political sounding board” for the positions of the members, which were split along party lines.
Subcommittee Chairman Tom McClintock, a California Republican, was “fired up,” Taylor said, making a rhetorical statement about federal land abuses in the west and the lack of support for western legislators in this area from the Massachusetts Congressional delegation. Why should the rest of Congress now come to the aid of Massachusetts, Taylor said McClintock asked.
Other than making the point that all politics was local, Taylor said there wasn't much to say in response. “You've just got to sit there and put a smile on your face,” he said.
He fielded several other questions from subcommittee members. Niki Tsongas from the Massachusetts Third District, who has a home in Chatham, did not ask questions, he said, but offered a statement on the value of federal lands and the need to protect and preserve the environment. The boundary issue, she said, should be resolved in the courts, according to Taylor.
In October Attorney General Maura Healey informed the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that the state planned to file suit in federal court over the boundary issue, affirming the state's ownership of the disputed area. The 180-day notification period required under federal law ended last week, Taylor said, but he has yet to hear when and if the case will move forward. Healey's office is working on the next step in the process, according to Deputy Press Secretary Chloe Gotsis.
Taylor believes the Monomoy boundary legislation will clear the subcommittee and the House Committee on Natural Resources along party lines. “If you ask me to be with you right now, I would bet that this thing moves out of Congress and goes to the Senate,” he said. Its fate, however, may depend on whether the bill survives in its current form or is attached to other legislation, or if other legislation is attached to it, he said.
“The biggest issue is if it comes out clean,” he said.
Legislation and litigation are two of three approaches the town is taking to try to resolve the boundary dispute. The final approach is to try to reach an administrative solution with the Fish and Wildlife Service. However, a new director of the agency has yet to be appointed by the Trump Administration.
“That stuff's got to settle out before we can even think about approaching a new administrative solution,” said Taylor.
Meanwhile, the CCP is in force and some activities within the disputed area, such as windsurfing and blue mussel harvesting, are no longer allowed.
“I think we're going to have to be very careful in letting our shellfishermen know that they shouldn't be going in there,” Taylor said. “I see no reason right now to goad the bull. I don't think it benefits us to look at the Fish and Wildlife Service and say you don't own this, we're going musseling here.”
Taylor, Town Manager Jill Goldsmith and Director of Natural Resources Robert Duncanson also visited Keating and Senators Edward Markey and Elizabeth Warren during their visit to the Capital last week.