For the first time, Congress will likely vote to gut a national wildlife refuge

Rep. Bill Keating.

Credit: Andrew Phelps (WBUR) via flickr

A bill passed out of committee would cut a Massachusetts wildlife refuge by half, highlighting a troubling defection to the ranks of Congress' extremist anti-public lands caucus.

Massachusetts Rep. Bill Keating wants to remove the open waters and seabed to the west of Monomoy Island from the Monomoy National Wildlife Refuge, a legislative proposal the congressman previously called a "last resort." When a bill to start this process was discussed in 2016,  a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service official warned that it would effectively "remov[e] the assurance these resources will be conserved and managed for wildlife and the American people in perpetuity,” making it a concern not only to her, but to many others within the agency.   

Now, Keating's "last resort" is moving through Congress, riding a wave of attacks on public lands that has most prominently included President Trump's rollbacks to Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments. The bill was marked up in the House Committee on Natural Resources Dec. 13, and we expect a full House vote in the coming months. It will likely pass through the House, and we will have a major showdown on our hands in the Senate to keep it from going to President Trump's desk to be signed into law. 

Terns at Monomoy National Wildlife Refuge, which is home to a variety of seabirds. Credit: Dr. Peter Paton (USFWS) via flickr.

Keating's bill fits into the larger, burgeoning threat of public land takeovers or sell-offs, which has swept through state legislatures and recently established a toehold in Washington, DC. 

Proponents want to remove large swaths of territory from the protective shield of federal agencies—the Fish and Wildlife Service, in this case--so that they can be taken over by state governments. This could potentially lead to states selling off public lands to oil, mining and logging companies.  

Keating seemingly in league with anti-public lands fringe 

One of the most distressing elements of this proposal is that it is being championed by a lawmaker who normally does the right thing. Rep. Keating boasts a 96% lifetime rating on the League of Conservation Voters' environmental scorecard, including numerous votes to defend public lands.  

Yet Keating now finds himself pushing just the kind of plan that is enthusiastically embraced by the land sell-off fringe—politicians like Reps. Rob Bishop, Mark Amodei and Paul Cook—who are working hard to privatize America's public land system so it can be developed. Massachusettsans should be asking why that is, and demanding answers from Rep. Keating. 

Precedent-setting attack on wildlife refuges 

National wildlife refuges are among the most democratic public lands America has to offer, with many of the 560-odd sites lying near cities and providing critical open space for communities that have few chances to connect with nature (in addition to acting as ramparts against habitat loss). If approved, Keating's bill would represent the first time Congress has voted to gut protection for a wildlife refuge.  

This legislation would set a dangerous precedent nationally, playing into the hands of anti-public lands ideologues in Congress and state legislatures. As with the numerous other anti-conservation attacks popping up, stay tuned for how you can help defeat it.