House Committee Issues Report On Monomoy Boundary Legislation

By: Tim Wood

The Monomoy National Wildlife Refuge.  FILE PHOTO

Dissenting View Says Court Should Decide Issue

CHATHAM – The House Committee on Natural Resources has issued its report on legislation setting the boundary of the Monomoy National Wildlife Refuge at the low tide mark, paving the way for the full House to vote on the bill.

The report, dated Feb. 2, also includes a dissenting view by three members of the committee who say that a final decision on the boundary should be left up to the courts to decide.

An estimate of the cost of the legislation from the Congressional Budget Office is also included in the report. The office concluded that the bill's passage would reduce the refuge by about 3,000 acres and have “minimal effect on the cost of administering the refuge.” The full report, in fact, states that passage of the legislation would prevent the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service from incurring legal fees from litigation the state of Massachusetts has threatened to bring over the boundary dispute.

The committee voted favorably on the bill in December, sending it on to the full House for a vote. The filing of the report is another step toward a House vote on the bill, said Town Manager Jill Goldsmith. The bill, H.R. 1157, was added to the House calendar last week and is ready for consideration. “We are working with the resources committee to see when the bill can be brought up,” Goldsmith said in an email. “It's a matter of securing floor time.”

Congressman William Keating filed the bill on the town's behalf to roll back the agency's claim to more than 3,000 acres of undersea area west of the refuge contained in the 2016 comprehensive conservation plan. State and local officials say they have responsibly managed the area for many years and fear that under federal control, access could to be limited to resources within the area, including fin and shellfish.

The report “couldn't be any more positive,” said Selectman Jeffrey Dykens. He noted that the committee acknowledged that when the refuge was created in 1944, the western boundary was set at mean low water and omitted the submerged intertidal zones and open ocean between sand bars and tidal flats around the refuge. The report also notes that the Fish and Wildlife Service ignored “sizable” outcry from local residents and the Massachusetts Attorney General's Office in opposition to the boundary change. It also notes 22 groups supported the legislation, including Gov. Charlie Baker, the Association to Preserve Cape Cod, the Chatham and Cape Cod chambers of commerce, New Bedford, Nantucket and nine Cape towns.

A dissenting view was filed by ranking Democrat Raul M. Grijalva of Arizona and Democrats Grace Napolitano and Jaraed Huffman, both of California. It states that the bill “revokes any federal interest” in the submerged land and conveys interest in more than 3,900 acres within the boundaries of the refuge to the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. The town, they wrote, opposed proposals made in the conservation planning process to limit some commercial fishing and kite surfing from that area, and that the final plan did not limit existing activities within the disputed area.

They criticize the Attorney General's Office involvement in the Fish and Wildlife Service's “valid, legal claim to the open waters and submerged lands” and state the area has been under “valid federal control singe 1944.” The bill was filed despite efforts by the agency to work with the town and other concerned stakeholders, they wrote.

Despite claims that the legislation will stop costly court battles, the three committee members said they believe decisions regarding the boundary are best left to the courts.

“We cannot support this bill because it would undermine the federal management of public lands especially when there is no evidence that points to better management under state control,” the dissenting report states.

“It's logic is specious,” Dykens said of the dissenting view, saying that the town and state never gave up control of the disputed area. The argument put forth by the minority bears similarities to those used by several conservation groups, including Mass Audubon, which opposed the legislation. Selectmen recently sent letters to Senators Edward Markey and Elizabeth Warren countering those claims and seeking their support if the bill is brought before the Senate.

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