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Environment

Interior Secretary Deb Haaland visits Quinault as climate pushes coastal tribes to higher ground

Irreversible sea-level rise is among the permanent consequences of human-caused climate change. That’s one of the findings of the new report out this week from the United Nation’s panel of scientists, the IPCC. 

On the front lines of the new challenges that poses are Washington’s coastal tribes. They’re experiencing the effects of climate change firsthand, as the warming ocean swells into waterfront villages and alters the chemistry of ecosystems in the Salish Sea.

The nation’s first Native American cabinet secretary acknowledged that this week. Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland visited with delegates from several coastal tribes Monday in Taholah, the traditional village and tribal seat of the Quinault Indian Nation reservation.   

Taholah sits at the mouth of the Quinault River, where the river meets the Pacific Ocean. Larry Ralston grew up in the old village, playing on an open field 200 feet from the water, near the house where his mother was born. It's about 15 feet above sea level.

He says he watched last year as waves started crashing over the seawall, into the heart of the old village.

Probably a dozen homes had to be evacuated, including the courthouse, the police department, the store, the community center. All had to be evacuated within five to 10 minutes,” Ralston says. “It was all two to three feet under – in the water.”

 

About 800 people still live in the flood zone and need to move. Many structures near the seawall have now been demolished, including the house of Ralston’s grandmother. 

He tears up talking about it. He says the village has been right on the waterfront for thousands of years – they have obsidian arrowheads in the tribal museum that date back 12,000 years – so rebuilding everything and moving it up the hillside is emotional. 

“This is a seaport, you know, where our ancestors traveled by canoe to hunt whales and seals and fish for other resources that were available to them near shore and further offshore,” Ralston says. “We're canoe people, and we have a strong history of this place.”   

Ralston is the tribe’s treasurer. His estimate of the cost, just for new structures, is between $60 million and $100 million.

That’s why so many tribal members were relieved and grateful to get a visit from their new interior secretary – who understands like no other what they are going through. 

It's clear that the federal government hasn't lived up to its trust in treaty obligations for decades,” Haaland said during a briefing in front of the Quinault’s new Generations Buildinga community center that opened in April. 

Haaland traveled here with U.S. Rep. Derek Kilmer, the lead sponsor of a Tribal Coastal Resilience Act. 

She told representatives of the eight coastal tribes in his district that her team at Interior has hit the ground running and is tackling issues for their communities that have lingered for far too long, from the impacts of climate change to underfunded health care.   

And so, yes, it is pretty urgent now,” Haaland said.

“And these areas like Taholah – inland tribal and Indigenous communities – are also vulnerable to the impacts of wildfire and drought. 

“As our coastal communities face the increasing threats of rising seas, coastal erosion and storm surges, our focus must be on bolstering climate resilience,” Haaland said. 

She says her cabinet and congressional leaders like Kilmer are working to get nearly $500 million of Biden’s bipartisan infrastructure deal earmarked for the Bureau of Indian Affairs to fund things like tribal relocation and resilience, as the communities are forced to adapt to the changing climate. 

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