CHATHAM — The town's effort to reclaim more than 3,000 acres of shellfish flats and submerged lands appropriated by the Monomoy National Wildlife Refuge has just received some important political support.
On Friday, Republican Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker sent a letter to the House Committee on Natural Resources expressing support for a bill filed by Congressman William Keating, a Democrat, which would restore the historic western boundary of the refuge.
“In the years before and after creation of the Refuge in 1944, the Commonwealth and the Town of Chatham have sustainably managed fisheries, provided sensible public access, and exercised sound stewardship over the open waters and submerged lands west of Monomoy Island,” Baker wrote in a letter to Republican Congressman Rob Bishop of Utah, the chairman of the House Committee on Natural Resources. The governor urged Bishop to support the legislation and move it through his committee.
Baker's endorsement is seen as a key signal that the town has bipartisan support in its dispute with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
“I think it's wonderful that we're getting the support,” Chatham Board of Selectmen Chairman Cory Metters said. Metters also acknowledged the support of Lt. Governor Karyn Polito.
The disputed 3,000 acres of sand flats and sea bottom have been managed jointly by the state and the town for hundreds of years. In 2015, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service approved a final comprehensive conservation plan for the Monomoy refuge that asserted new jurisdiction over the area west of the island. The town has argued that the action represents an illegal administrative taking, and Keating's bill would make it clear that the refuge's western boundary is at the island's low tide line, where it was set in 1944.
Last spring, the heads of seven Massachusetts-based environmental groups signed a letter urging lawmakers 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. It also expressed that yielding on this issue could prompt the loss of other federal lands to states and municipalities, “and their resources would lose federal protections and be quickly auctioned off to the highest bidder.”
Last year, 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 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.
Laura Amandolara McDermott, a spokeswoman for Rep. Keating, said the Congressman filed the bill “because he strongly believes that Massachusetts has been and would remain a good steward of the land for conservation and this is an issue that needs resolution sooner rather than later. Governor Baker’s letter in support shows that the Commonwealth is willing to continue that role and responsibility.”
Keating's bill remains before the House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Federal Lands, where it has been since April.