CHATHAM — From the town’s perspective, the latest volleys in the Monomoy refuge boundary dispute have added insult to injury, selectmen said Monday.
On Jan. 5, federal officials replied to a letter the town sent to U.S. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke more than half a year earlier, asking him to intervene in the town’s dispute with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The reply didn’t come from Zinke or from another federal official in Washington, but rather from Northeast Regional Director Wendi Weber.
The letter upholds the federal claim to more than 4,000 acres of water and submerged land in Nantucket Sound west of the refuge, saying that area was included in the 1944 land taking that created the refuge. Weber’s letter acknowledges that the town and the state have successfully and sustainably managed the fisheries in that area since that time.
“We also acknowledge that active regulation by the [Fish and Wildlife] Service of submerged and tidal lands has been limited; however, the authority to regulate by the Service has never been relinquished,” Weber wrote.
“Recognizing this disagreement, we have also offered to enter into a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with the Town and the Commonwealth to cooperatively manage these resources,” she wrote.
The offer comes despite the fact that the town and refuge officials negotiated without success for more than a year on an MOU for joint management of the areas in question.
On Monday, town officials brought the letter to the board of selectmen to see whether the board wished to reply.
“If we do reply, I think we should wait seven months,” Selectman Jeffrey Dykens quipped. Dykens argued that the offer of an agreement with the town is hollow, since it would not allow for actual cooperative management of the submerged lands. The town had sought a pact that would give both sides veto power over other side's management proposals, but agreement couldn't be reached.
“It really needs to be total joint management,” he said. “And it’s not going to happen, so I don’t want to give them any thought or prayer of our acceding to the way they want to approach the management of the wildlife refuge.”
Board member Dean Nicastro said the letter, written by a “lower-tier person” on behalf of Zinke, simply restates the federal land claim.
Town officials are placing most of their hope on House Bill 1157, which would re-draw the refuge boundary lines to eliminate most of the disputed area. The legislation has successfully cleared the House Committee on Natural Resources and is expected to go to a full House vote soon, where it is likely to pass; it would then go to the Senate.
“Ultimately, if in fact we’re successful in the Congress, then [Weber’s letter] isn’t going to matter,” Nicastro said. “Because I can’t imagine that the current president wouldn’t sign a bill like this.”
Last March, a group of seven environmental groups penned a letter to the state’s Congressional delegation urging them to reject the bill, which was authored by Congressman William Keating. The groups argued that they are “deeply concerned about the threat to public lands across American that this and other Congressional legislation poses,” and worry that the bill supports “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.” An extreme example of that agenda, it noted, was the occupation of an Oregon wildlife refuge by armed militiamen in 2017.
On Jan. 12, a virtually identical letter was sent by the environmental groups to Sen. Edward Markey.
“We think the environmental organizations have kind of maybe given up on the House now and are trying to move over to the Senate,” Health and Natural Resources Director Robert Duncanson told the board Monday.
Selectman Shareen Davis, who serves with Dykens on the subcommittee dealing with the Monomoy refuge dispute, said it’s important for the board to reply to the charges with its own letter to Markey and Sen. Elizabeth Warren.
The reply approved by the board calls the environmental groups’ letter “irresponsible” and “misleading and dishonest.” In its letter, selectmen argue that it is disingenuous for critics to draw parallels between armed militiamen in Oregon and shellfishermen seeking to continue their traditional fishery off Monomoy.
Davis said the board’s letter to Markey and Warren served “as a strong indication of how we felt as a town.” The fact that the environmental groups’ letter was almost an exact duplicate of the one sent nearly a year ago “was a slap in our face,” Davis said.
The town’s letter urges Markey to support the Senate version of the bill.
“For centuries Monomoy has been integral to the identity and mythology of Chatham. Since 1656 when William Nickerson became the first English colonist to purchase land from the Monomoyick tribe, the Island and the waters and submerged lands around it have been the heart and lifeblood of Chatham,” the letter reads.