When Fawn Sharp was a child, her village in coastal Washington looked different. “We used to have a beach that was the size of a football field,” she says. “Now the ocean is right on our back door.” Just a few decades ago, there were also four mighty glaciers deep in the Olympia Mountains feeding the Quinault River, which flows through the Quinault Indian Nation’s 208,150-acre reservation. But as Sharp recently saw from a helicopter window, the Anderson Glacier has disappeared, reduced to dirt on a mountainside, and the other three are rapidly receding. Partly as a result of the decreased meltwater flow, the millions of sockeye salmon that flourished in the river back in the 1950s and 1960s—and which supported the livelihoods of fishermen like her grandfather—are also mostly gone.
Concerned by the direct impacts of climate change on her people and their lands and culture, Sharp made establishing a climate agenda for the Washington State tribe one of her top priorities when she was elected president and CEO of the Quinault Indian Nation in 2006. Her plan takes into account the rising ocean tides that increasingly jeopardize the homeland and culture of her people.
That threat looms large. A 2019 NRDC report warned of an 83 percent chance that sea level would rise up to two feet before 2100 along Washington’s coast, creating a significant risk of severe annual flooding.
In response to the unfolding climate emergency, the Quinault Indian Nation created a comprehensive relocation plan, which includes moving two of its Olympic Peninsula villages, Taholah and Queets, to higher ground. The villages are home to 660 tribal members and also host a school, a post office, police and fire services, and the Quinault Cultural Center and Museum.
Pacific Northwest Tribes Build Climate Resilience
A growing number of tribal nations and intertribal organizations have adopted climate assessment and adaptation plans, according to the National Congress of American Indians. In Washington State, several tribes have included relocation as one of their adaptation strategies. The Quileute Tribe in La Push launched Move to Higher Ground, a campaign to raise funding to move residents and facilities to higher elevations—with the first step being the relocation of its K-12 tribal school. The Lummi Nation, a 5,000-member tribe near Bellingham, included plans for land acquisition to relocate buildings out of special flood hazard areas as part of its Climate Change Mitigation and Adaptation Plan.
Given the increasing need for this kind of planning, staff of the University of Washington’s Northwest Climate Adaptation Science Center created a series of tools to help tribes assess their risks from climate change. Program director Amy Snover notes that the resources and technical support grew out of a request from local tribes for help in assessing their vulnerabilities and creating adaptation plans. “Tribes are leaders in coming together to think about multiple aspects of [climate change] and coming up with innovative ways to adapt,” Snover adds.
But that’s not to say that climate adaptation is easy for anyone. Sharp notes that the relocation plan has taken a toll on members of the Quinault Nation. Some residents of Taholah do not want to move, and the tribe has amended its zoning laws to ensure that tribal members can remain in their homes.
“One of our tribal elders has a place on Front Street, right next to the seawall. He loves being connected to the ocean and wants to stay in his home,” Sharp says. “We have to pass laws that keep our citizens out of harm’s way, and we also have to be compassionate and . . . serve the best interests of our communities.”
She also emphasizes the need to approach discussions on climate change through a local lens, to maximize support for the adaptation plans. And to address the skepticism that some tribal members had about the need for urgent action, support from elders who had witnessed significant changes to the landscape was key, Sharp says. They helped her connect climate change to the decline of local fisheries, which raised awareness among the 3,000 tribal members that they were facing an imminent threat.
“When we start to see our landscape through the eyes of our elders, we really start to understand . . . how relatively rapidly these changes are happening to our community,” Sharp says. The impacts of climate change on the health and abundance of Columbia River Basin salmon and steelhead have been so severe that 15 species are now protected under the Endangered Species Act. And last year, in response to the historically low numbers of wild adult salmon returning to spawn in the Quinault River, the tribe made the decision to close commercial fishing for the river’s blueback (sockeye) altogether. “We could be the last generation that knows this traditional resource, which is not just part of our diets and our celebrations and our ceremonies but also our identities,” she adds.
The tribe has been working on rejuvenating habitat as part of the Upper Quinault River Restoration, which began in 2008. This effort includes rebuilding the river’s side channels (which provide places for salmon to hide from predators), enhancing riverbanks with native trees (and removing invasive, nonnative plants such as knotweed), and reconnecting the river to its floodplain. Sharp estimates the entire project could be completed within the next decade if funding sources are available.
The Economic Realities for Climate Refugees
According to a report produced by the U.S. Forest Service, tribal nations are among the most vulnerable to the impacts of a changing climate because sea level rise, erosion, and changes to water temperature and streamflow threaten their access to culturally important habitats and species and force relocation from ancestral lands.
NRDC senior policy analyst Anna A. Weber, who studies the impacts of climate change and climate adaptation policies, says other factors also contribute to positioning Indigenous peoples like the Quinault Indian Nation on the front lines of our climate crisis. “The people who are the most likely to be displaced by climate change are likely to be low-income families and families of color because of long-standing policies like redlining, which have disproportionately led to communities of color being located in areas that are more susceptible to environmental hazards,” she says. “Relocation is a challenging topic for anyone, but add to this the fact that you’re dealing with communities who have been living on their ancestral lands for perhaps thousands of years and the toll is just unimaginable.”
Sharp is seeking funds to undertake her tribe’s relocation project, which she estimates will cost between $60 million and $100 million. That’s no small task—while FEMA buyout funding helps individual homeowners move from disaster-prone areas, little of this support goes toward large-scale disaster mitigation efforts like the Quinault’s. Weber notes that FEMA support is tied primarily to specific disaster declarations, so communities might receive funds only after a hurricane, tornado, wildfire, or other disaster. Recent research has also found that wealthier communities often get better access to this pool of limited federal aid, leaving vulnerable low-income communities with less support.
Even when FEMA dollars are available, the grants cover just 75 percent of the costs to relocate; communities must secure the remaining 25 percent through additional funding mechanisms. Other challenges associated with the federal disaster recovery program include the length of time it takes to distribute mitigation grant funding—months or even years, versus the weeks it typically takes for flood insurance claims to be settled.
Other federal agencies, including Housing and Urban Development, the Department of Agriculture, the Army Corps of Engineers, and the Bureau of Indian Affairs, also provide disaster assistance, and it can be hard to coordinate efforts to fund climate change projects, adds Congressman Derek Kilmer (D-WA).
To help cut through the red tape, Kilmer introduced the Tribal Coastal Resiliency Act, bipartisan legislation that allows the Department of Commerce to award grants to Indian tribes to implement preparedness plans to protect, restore, or preserve their reservations. The bill passed the House in December and is awaiting a vote in the Senate.
“Tribes may have land they can move to, but it’s complicated and expensive to move an entire village, and that is a cost that simply cannot be borne only by coastal tribes,” Kilmer says. “[The bill] is one step to help these communities deal with the effects of climate change.”
Rallying for Change
Sharp believes the Tribal Coastal Resiliency Act has tremendous potential to help the Quinault Indian Nation and other tribes in similar straits. But in the meantime, she’s working on securing funding to assist with the relocation of the Taholah and Queets villages and fighting on both the state and national levels to advance climate policy to safeguard the future of her tribe.
She takes heart in the success she and other tribal leaders have seen from their climate activism, as when, in 2016, they organized a Shared Waters, Shared Values rally to oppose the transportation of crude oil through the ecologically and culturally important Grays Harbor to rail terminals in Hoquiam, Washington. The rally attracted more than 600 Quinault tribal members and their neighbors, who paddled down the river in a flotilla and then marched to Hoquiam City Hall. Sharp called the event a “broad spectrum of synergy” that turned adversaries into allies. All three proposed oil terminals were defeated.
“We’re finding that through both our offensive strategic thinking and advancing climate policy, we are able to protect, defend, and stand on a lot of our ancestral teachings . . . ensuring that there’s a balance between man and nature,” she says. “We're gaining a great deal of support from our own communities and also the nontribal communities to be a voice and a champion, not only for our children and grandchildren but for the children and grandchildren of the entire community, tribal and nontribal.”
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