CHATHAM – Seven environmental groups that signed a letter opposing federal legislation to change the western boundary of the Monomoy National Wildlife Refuge have been invited to meet with town officials next month to try to resolve their differences.
Given the new Democratic majority in the House of Representatives, some of the concerns expressed in a March 2017 letter from environmental organizations regarding the legislation to alter the boundary may no longer be valid, Town Manager Jill Goldsmith wrote in a Dec. 26 letter to the groups. Specifically, the possibility the legislation could lead to Congress ceding other federal conservation lands to states is less likely to occur under the Democrats.
The legislation filed on behalf of Chatham by Congressman William Keating differed from other bills that sought to relinquish federal conservation lands, said Natural Resources Director Robert Duncanson. The legislation sought to set the western boundary of the Monomoy Refuge at the low water mark, not father out in Nantucket Sound. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's comprehensive conservation plan for Monomoy claimed jurisdiction over more than 3,000 acres of waters and submerged lands west of the refuge that local officials say has always been managed by the town and state.
“Our little bill kind of got lumped in with that bigger picture,” Duncanson said.
During the last Congressional session, the bill was approved by the committee on natural resources but failed to come up for a full House vote. Keating refiled the legislation Jan. 3.
“We felt it was important to take the opportunity to sit down with them and make sure there was a clear understanding of exactly what it was the town was concerned about and what the tow is trying to achieve” with the legislation, Duncanson said of the Feb. 8 meeting, scheduled for 10 a.m. at the town offices. One or two staff members and two selectmen will attend, according to Goldsmith's letter, and representatives have been invited from Mass Audubon, the Trustees, the Conservation Law Foundation, the Environmental League of Massachusetts, the Massachusetts Sierra Club, the Appalachian Mountain Club and the Trust for Public Land.
In the March 16, 2017 letter, the groups wrote that they support the western boundary as it exists but said that the state and town should continue to have the responsibility of “sustainably managing the traditional harvest of softshell clams and quahogs by local fishermen in this area,” which has no negative impact on the refuge.
The groups were “deeply concerned” that the legislation could play into the hands of those who want to devalue public lands and make it easier to dispose of them. “We are concerned that Congressional champions of the radical public lands takeover movement would hijack the bill,” the letter read. That the legislation came from “liberal” Massachusetts would make that move even more enticing.
The groups urged that town and federal officials reach their own compromise on the issue. The Fish and Wildlife Service offered to enter into an agreement allowing the town and the state to oversee activities within the disputed area, but it was rejected because it maintained federal jurisdiction and offered no assures the agency would not assert its authority over traditional activities, said town officials. While the agency has said that it has no intention of interfering with fishing and shellfish within the disputed area, town officials fear that could happen unless the low tide line is set as the western boundary.
Jack Clarke, Mass Audubon's director of public policy and government relation, said the issue “needs to be resolved at the local level and not in Washington.” The environmental agencies and the town are in agreement that local management of resources has worked well for decades, he said, but the groups believe the boundary should remain as established in federal law and in the refuge comprehensive conservation plan. The Fish and Wildlife Service, town and state should hammer out an agreement and “leave the boundary alone,” he said. There are precedents for that, he said, referring to agreements he worked on with the towns and Cape Cod National Seashore regulating offroad vehicles.
“Things are going to be crazy in Washington. Let's keep it at the local level,” Clark said.
Officials hope to use the Feb. 8 meeting to convince the environmental groups that their concern about the legislation is unfounded, said Selectman Jeffrey Dykens. “We hope to clearly communicate our position and further understand their position,” he said. Duncanson agreed that a direct meeting of the parties is critical to both sides' understanding of the issue. “It's always better to try to meet face to face,” he said.
With a Democratically controlled House, the legislation is more likely to come up for a vote, Duncanson said, but the Senate, he noted, is still controlled by the Republicans.
“How the politics will play in that it's too early to tell,” he said.
Town officials continue to work other angles to try to resolve the boundary dispute. They had been in contact with the office of Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, but his departure leaves that approach in question.
“Does that mean we're back to square one on that? Again, that's something else we'll have to see how it shakes out in the coming weeks,” Duncanson said.
The office of Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey is still working on a possible lawsuit against the federal government on the issue, but officials still prefer the legislative route, which Dykens said would “save everybody a whole lot of time and money.”
“We very much want to get this resolved,” he said.