CHATHAM – With federal legislation to resolve the Monomoy National Wildlife Refuge western boundary dispute between the town and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service stalled, town officials are exploring another tack, a possible administrative solution to the dilemma.
Exactly what form such an approach would take remains vague, but officials reported that they had a “promising” meeting in Washington, D.C. last week with Senator Edward Markey, whose staff has discussed the matter with the office of Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke.
“We had a great meeting with Markey,” said Selectman Jeffrey Dykens, who traveled to Washington last Wednesday with fellow Selectman Shareen Davis and Director of Natural Resources Dr. Robert Duncanson. Markey and his staff were “attentive” and “very interested” in the issue, Dykens said.
“It's the best visit I've had to Washington so far,” he said, although he cautioned against putting too much stock in a potential administrative solution at this time. “I don't want to over promise and under deliver,” he commented.
"Our office has been meeting with local leaders and administration officials, including the office of the Interior Secretary,” Giselle Barry, Markey's communications director, said in a statement emailed to The Chronicle Tuesday. “Senator Markey continues to believe that there can and should be a resolution to this situation that is agreeable to all and he will continue to work towards that outcome."
Town and state officials dispute the conclusion of the Fish and Wildlife Service, in the 2016 comprehensive conservation plan for Monomoy, that the refuge includes some 3,000 to 4,000 acres of submerged lands and open waters west of the island. Rather, they say the 1944 taking of the refuge set the western boundary as low water, but federal officials counter thatan administrative boundary set in Nantucket Sound allows the agency to control activities within that disputed area. Some activities within the area, such as kiteboarding and blue mussel fishing, were banned by the management plan, but refuge officials say they have no plans to regulate traditional fin or shellfishing within the area, which remain under management by state and town regulation, and want to work with local officials to resolve the dispute.
Local officials, however, fear that could change at any time. They cite the long years of local and state management of activity in the area as evidence of their good stewardship as well as their legal right to oversee activities there.
Several approaches are being taken to try to resolve the dispute.
A bill sponsored by Congressman William Keating, D-Ninth District, which sets the refuge's western boundary at low water, was reported favorably out of the House Natural Resources Committee but has yet to be taken up by the full House. Selectmen have been critical of Keating's inability to move the legislature forward. Dykens didn't have much confidence the bill would go anywhere in the current session of Congress, but said officials will persist with that approach.
“Even if Congress leaves and we have a new Congress, we're going to have [Keating] refile the bill,” he said. “We feel it's important legislation to keep in front of the House.”
Attorney General Maura Healy has also indicated that the state is considering suing the federal government over the western boundary issue, but there has been no movement on that front.
Town officials have traveled to Washington numerous times and hosted federal and state officials in town to discuss the issue and tour the disputed area. Jeff Pike, a former Chatham commercial fisherman who is now a Washington lobbyist, has been employed to advise the town.
Details of what an administrative option might look like are unknown, and will likely come from the department of the interior, said Duncanson. In the past, officials have talked about amending or changing the comprehensive conservation plan to somehow reflect the concerns of the town and state without negatively impacting the refuge's ability to carry out its mission of protecting migratory waterfowl.
“Nothing's off the table,” said Davis. “We're engaging in every piece we've been engaging in the last few years we've been pursing this.”
The face-to-face meeting with Markey was key, she added, in getting across the seriousness of the situation. Markey was “very supportive,” she said, and his staff has been “very dedicated to the issue and has done their due diligence.”
Dykens said he expects Markey's staff to be in touch with Zinke's office and to hear back from them in the next few weeks. The message residents should take away, he added, is that “Senator Markey is doing his job and this is the most promising visit we've had in quite some time.”
Davis said selectmen will be updated on the boundary dispute at their Aug. 13 meeting.