Officials Push For Permanent Solution To Refuge Boundary Dispute

By: Tim Wood

The Monomoy National Wildlife Refuge.  FILE PHOTO

CHATHAM – Hoping to impress upon federal officials the need for a permanent solution to the dispute over the Monomoy National Wildlife Refuge's western boundary, town officials traveled to Washington, D.C. Monday and met U.S. Department of the Interior officials.

Selectman Shareen Davis, Natural Resources Director Robert Duncanson and Town Manager Jill Goldsmith also met with staff from the House Natural Resources Committee for an update on the status of legislation that sets the western boundary of the refuge at low water.

For more than a year now the town and state have been working to reverse what they call an “illegal taking” of more than 3,000 acres of submerged lands west of the refuge. The agency asserted ownership of the area in the comprehensive conservation plan (CCP) for the refuge approved early last year, reserving the right to regulate all activities including traditional fishing and shellfishing. Town and state officials say low water has been the western boundary of the refuge since its creation in 1944, and that the disputed area has been responsibly managed by the town and state for centuries.

The meeting with Aurelia Skipwith, Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Fish and Wildlife and Parks,  and Benjamin Cassidy, Senior Deputy Director for External and Intergovernmental Affairs, both from Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke's office, was “very straightforward and productive,” said Davis, adding that staff members were “extremely interested in the facts of our case.”

The staff members, most of whom are new to the department, “recognized the commitment of the town and commonwealth to sustainable stewardship of this area and the fact that we have exercised this stewardship responsibly for generations,” she said.

Governor Charles Baker's Washington Chief of Staff Tom Daly also attended the session. “That showed a little bi-partisanship on the issue,” Davis said. Much of the meeting, she added, involved explaining the history of Monomoy, how the language in the CCP shifted, the political backdrop and the importance of Monomoy and the western flats and waters to the local economy.

“We got them up to speed on the issues around the boundary dispute,” she said.

The town has been taking a three-prong approach to try to resolve the boundary dispute. Working through the Interior Department is an administrative approach to try to get the language in the CCP changed. There was positive feedback on that tack from Zinke's staff, Davis said, adding that the current atmosphere in Washington favors what is a rollback of a federal mandate.

“That's not the best fix,” she said, as it would leave open the possibility of the language being restored in the next CCP in 15 years.

“Obviously the town wants a permanent solution,” she said.

That could be accomplished through the legislation filed by Rep. William Keating, which would permanently fixed the refuge western boundary at low water. That bill has been stuck in the House Natural Resources Committee's subcommittee on federal lands for months now.

“That's been a source of frustration for the town,” Davis acknowledged. In Monday's meeting with Natural Resources Committee staff, town officials reiterated the town's case as well as the administrative and legal approaches the town and state are taking to resolve the dispute.

The legal case is being pursued by Attorney General Maura Healey; although she put the federal government on notice last year that she intends to file suit in federal court over the matter, no action has yet been taken.

Davis, Duncanson and Goldsmith – who were accompanied by Jeff Pike, the town's representative in Washington on the issue – also met with Keating's new legislative director, and while Keating supports the bill and the town is grateful that he sponsored the legislation, Davis said there was a certain level of frustration over its failure to gain traction.

“We didn't feel like we walked out with a solid direction,” she said.

Even so, Davis said the issue is “totally alive. This one is important o the town and the townspeople. The town is keeping positive and keeping pressure on this administrative to resolve the issue.”

“It was a day of telling our story again, pushing all the different avenues and venues forward, hoping we'll start to hear some good stuff.”