Chatham Officials Say US Fish and Wildlife Service Wrong For Claiming 4,000 Acres

CHATHAM — Town officials plan to tell a House subcommittee in Washington, D.C., this afternoon that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service was wrong three years ago when it claimed ownership of nearly 4,000 acres of ocean on the western side of the Monomoy National Wildlife Refuge.

“(T)here was absolutely no reason for FWS (Fish and Wildlife Service) to usurp local and state management of the open waters and submerged lands west of Monomoy Islands for environmental reasons,” Selectman Seth Taylor wrote in prepared testimony shared with the Times in advance of the hearing.

Taylor is expected to make the town’s case that there is no legal basis for the federal government to expand the refuge from the 3,000 acres found referenced in numerous historic documents denoting what land was taken by eminent domain when the refuge was created in 1944.

In their 2014 draft management plan, the federal agency surprised the town and the state when it claimed the ocean acreage fell within the refuge boundaries and that it had a right to manage fisheries within that area. Up until that time, the state Division of Marine Fisheries and the town’s shellfish department had managed the abundant shellfish and fish stocks in what was considered state waters.

Fish and Wildlife officials initially sought to ban certain types of fishing they believe damaged the bottom habitat. Since then, they have ceded management to the town and state for the foreseeable future but still maintain ownership and their right to manage fisheries in the area if needed.

In October, state Attorney General Maura Healey informed the agency her office intended to sue for control of the area.

After extended negotiations between the town and Fish and Wildlife failed, the town asked U.S. Rep. William Keating, D-Mass., to file legislation to clarify that the boundary did not include the disputed area. Today marked the first legislative hearing before the Subcommittee on Federal Lands, chaired by Rep. Tom McClintock. Taylor, Chatham Town Manager Jillian Goldsmith, Chatham director of Health and Environment Robert Duncanson, and their lobbyist, Jeffrey Pike, will be in Washington, meeting with Keating and U.S. senators Edward Markey and Elizabeth Warren.

But some worry Keating’s legislation undermines the mission of one of the most important national bird refuges on the Atlantic coast, that it severs the link between the food and the migrating bird species that are critically dependent on refueling for long seasonal journeys.

Additionally, concern lingers over whether the bill could get “hijacked” by lawmakers who want to open up federal land to activities like oil and gas exploration and extraction or other commercial enterprises, claiming it would set a precedent that threatens other public lands and waters.

“Misguided legislation to transfer half of Monomoy Refuge to the Commonwealth could fuel destructive efforts to dismantle other national wildlife refuges and public lands across the country,” according to a letter submitted to the subcommittee and signed by a number of environmental and conservation groups including the Massachusetts Audubon Society, the Appalachian Mountain Club, the Conservation Law Foundation, Massachusetts Sierra Club, Environmental League of Massachusetts and The Trustees of Reservations.

“The (Chairman of House Natural Resources Committee and Utah Rep.) Rob Bishop crowd wants to get back these lands,” said Jack Clarke, director of policy and government relations at Massachusetts Audubon. “This is dangerous territory to get into right now.”

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