The US Fish and Wildlife Service’s (USFWS) Monomoy National Wildlife Refuge is a peaceful retreat on Cape Cod where Chatham residents and visitors can escape to walk coastal trails, take in views of the ocean, and learn about important salt marsh and barrier beach ecosystems. The Refuge also provides important habitat for species like endangered roseate terns, threatened piping plovers, and horseshoe crabs. Our Advocacy Department was lucky enough to see this all firsthand during a recent field trip to the Refuge.
We were also there to get a glimpse of the serene stretch of coastline that has become an increasing source of tension among local and federal officials over the past few months.
The focus of the conflict has been the management of the western boundary of the Refuge. Monomoy is comprised of a series of dynamic barrier beaches and islands and is constantly reshaped by wind, waves, and tides. Federal and local officials have traditionally worked together to preserve this area, but shifting coastlines have blurred the borders and management expectations.
What’s the Issue?
The problem arose when USFWS released a proposed management plan for the Refuge implying they had jurisdictional authority to manage thousands of acres of water, and the fisheries within them, beyond the low tide mark into Nantucket Sound. The Service cited a map from the Refuge’s establishment in 1944 that they say included this additional area as within the Refuge boundary. But state and local officials argued that the federally-managed portion was only intended to include any land area that might build up above the mean low tide mark (through sand accretion, for instance), not the land underneath or waters beyond it.
Fishing activity in the Refuge has historically been managed by state and town regulations, so a shift over to the federal government would be a significant change in their view.
Capitol Hill Takes Notice
In an effort to resolve the problem, Massachusetts Congressman William Keating has filed a bill on behalf of the town to clarify the western boundary issue. If passed, the legislation would allow state and town to officials to continue managing the area rather than USFWS.
This bill is less intrusive than a previous version that would have set the limits of the boundary itself. Mass Audubon has concerns that this type of legislation could create a dangerous opportunity for unfriendly amendments or future legislation by others to strip or weaken federal control over protected land.
While we wait to see if the bill will move through Congress, town and federal officials are also drafting a Memorandum of Understanding to iron out the details of the Refuge’s management.
Mass Audubon has encouraged this route from the beginning, both for the sake of town-federal relations, and to avoid the potential precedent it could set for land protection across the US to rely on legislative action for these types of disagreements. A similar agreement was reached over the eastern border of the Refuge earlier this year, and should serve as an example for this negotiation.
Ideally, we hope this issue is resolved in Chatham Town Hall and not in an environmentally hostile Congress or in a contentious courtroom.
In the latest action taken around this conflict, the Massachusetts Attorney General’s office has filed a Notice of Intent to sue the US Fish and Wildlife Service. We will continue to carefully monitor the situation and encourage all parties to resolve the matter by negotiation rather than the courtroom.
Want to learn more?
In addition to our comments to the US Fish and Wildlife Service on the management of Monomoy’s western boundary, Mass Audubon has written Op Eds in The Cape Cod Times and The Cape Codder and commented in The Boston Globe on this topic.
This New York Times article looks into the larger Congressional struggle to reconcile federal and local management of wildlife refuges, and includes Monomoy among its examples.
This Boston Globe editorial further highlights the issue’s importance.