CHATHAM — In a step that is unusual, if not unprecedented, the town of Chatham has initiated a petition asking Gov. Charlie Baker's support for federal legislation that would restore the western boundary of the Monomoy National Wildlife Refuge to its traditional area.
Typically neutral in political disputes, the town is asking residents and visitors to sign petition forms at various town buildings, at Cape Fishermen's Supply and online, urging Baker to support the bill that would take nearly 4,000 acres of tidal flats claimed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and restoring it to state and town control. The tidal flats are critically important to the town's commercial shellfish industry.
Selectman Jeffrey Dykens, the senior member of the board's Monomoy refuge subcommittee, urged residents and visitors to add their signatures before the petition closes on June 30.
“We think it's necessary to keep the issue in front of everybody who cares about it,” Dykens said. Recruiting the support of the state's Republican governor is designed to show that the legislation has bipartisan support.
With the support of town meeting voters, selectmen have been fighting the implementation of the refuge's Comprehensive Conservation Plan, which asserts jurisdiction to a large area of Nantucket Sound to the west of the island, which town and state officials say was not included in the area identified when the refuge was created in 1944.
“It really was illegal,” Dykens said. “We believe we were harmed by an illegal taking.” Congressman William Keating, D-9th District, filed H.R. 1157 to restore the 1944 boundary, but Dykens said town officials want to demonstrate to him that local support for the legislation is strong. More than just filing the bill, Keating needs to be a vocal supporter who does his best to ensure Congress approves it, Dykens said.
“We're not going away,” he said.
On March 16, the heads of seven Massachusetts-based environmental groups signed a letter to Keating and other lawmakers urging them to reject Keating's bill. The letter argues that the refuge is the only coastal wilderness area in New England, and provides key habitat for rare shorebirds, gray seals, horseshoe crabs and blue mussels.
While the environmentalists argue that the refuge should maintain control of the disputed western area, they said the state and town should be allowed to manage the traditional harvest of quahogs and steamers by local fishermen. “We know of no scientific data to indicate the harvesting of clams ans quahogs, as conducted for many years at Monomoy, has had a negative impact on wildlife, migrating shorebirds, or tidal flat habitat,” they wrote.
But the environmental groups expressed deep concern about a threat to public lands “across America that this and other Congressional legislation poses.” As the militants who took control of a wildlife refuge in Oregon demonstrated, there is 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,” they wrote. The letter was signed by the heads of Mass Audubon, the Environmental League of Massachusetts, the Trustees, the Massachusetts Sierra Club, The conservation Law Foundation, the Appalachian Mountain Club and the Trust for Public Land.
“The issue's been re-crafted by the environmentalists,” Dykens said. The state and town have decades of history of careful stewardship of the flats west of Monomoy, he noted. “There was nothing wrong before.”
Jeffrey Pike, the town's consultant on the Monomoy dispute, said the environmentalists' letter is the only one he's seen that opposes the House bill. Pike said there were no witnesses present for the environmentalists at an April 5 hearing on the bill. Former Selectman Seth Taylor gave the town's case in support of the bill at the hearing.
Last year, Mass. Attorney General Maura Healey indicated that she may file suit against the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in federal court over the boundary issue, affirming the state's ownership of the disputed area. Town officials say Healey has not yet decided whether to proceed with that litigation.
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.
“In a very ironic way, President Trump might appoint somebody at the Fish and Wildlife Service who will be very pro-state,” Dykens said. Such a person may decide to simply roll back the CCP, without the need for legislation or litigation. An administrative solution to the dispute would be the town's top choice, he said.
Meanwhile, the CCP is in force and some activities within the disputed area, such as windsurfing and blue mussel harvesting, are no longer allowed.
The petitions are available to be signed at the Chatham town offices on Main Street, the town annex on George Ryder Road, the community center and the senior center, and at Cape Fishermen's Supply. The petition can also be signed online at www.MoveOn.org.