Some 2,500 miles separate Cape Cod’s Monomoy National Wildlife Refuge from the Oregon bird sanctuary that briefly became famous in January after antigovernment zealots occupied it to protest what they viewed as overbearing control of federally owned land.
But, in the eyes of some environmental advocates, a seemingly modest dispute between the US Fish and Wildlife Service and the town of Chatham has ominous echoes of Western land controversies. Led by Mass Audubon, environmental and wildlife groups have raised alarms that if local politicians get Congress to settle Monomoy’s borders in the state’s favor, it will inadvertently give bipartisan cover to critics of federal land management seeking their own curbs on federal lands.
The town and the federal agency are squabbling over who owns a few thousand acres of submerged land on the western side of the refuge, a haven for seals, crabs, and migratory birds. Governor Charlie Baker and Attorney General Maura Healey have both sided with the town. Nationally, the federal government owns about 640 million acres and is no stranger to controversies. The normal procedure for resolving disagreements when compromise fails would be to head to federal court.
But Bill Keating, the Democratic congressman who represents Cape Cod, is readying legislation that would bypass that process. Keating described the legislation as no more than a clarification, which would specify that 3,900 disputed underwater acres never belonged to the federal government in the first place.
In an interview, he said that the criticism from environmentalists is overblown, and that his proposal is fundamentally different from Western efforts to limit federal control over land whose ownership is not in dispute. He also says he would never allow his proposal to be lumped in with efforts by conservative Republicans to dilute federal control over land, which he says he opposes.
“If this is packaged with those other land issues that I have never supported, then I won’t support it, and the town is on notice to that,” Keating said.
Still, the bottom line of Keating’s legislation is that it would stop the federal government from asserting ownership over ecologically sensitive land it has at least a plausible claim to, based on World War II-era documents. As a legal matter, he may be correct that there’s a nuanced distinction between his legislation and Republican efforts. But the environmentalists have a point about the politics: A Massachusetts Democrat moving to weaken the hand of the Fish and Wildlife Service certainly risks emboldening Republican critics who recently tried to transfer protected land in Puerto Rico out of federal control and have long itched to open a refuge in Alaska to oil drilling.
It would be much preferable for the town and the Fish and Wildlife Service to reach a compromise on Monomoy, or, failing that, go to court. To be sure, court proceedings take years and would leave the status of a portion of Monomoy in limbo. But short-circuiting that process through federal legislation creates risks, too — risks that extend well beyond Cape Cod.