The climate crisis is quickly altering the shape of northwest coastal regions — its ecosystems, its coastlines, and ways of life. Alaska Native villages are particularly at risk of severe infrastructure damage due to climate related environmental impacts, including sea level rise, erosion, and extreme weather events. The situation is untenable, and now the US government is stepping in with federal funding. Select tribes can relocate inland, should they so desire, with built-in safeguards to protect tribal sovereignty while revitalizing their communities.
“It gave me goose bumps when I found out we got that money,” Joseph John, Jr., a council member in Newtok, Alaska, told the New York Times. “It will mean a lot to us.”
To walk alongside a native islander and see the ever-softening, ever-shrinking land around their home is startling. In the past, many broad proclamations about climate change-spurred relocation and funding have been little more than a pleasant mist of meaning without substance.
How will the Biden-Harris plan be different?
Tribal Agency through Voluntary Community-Driven Relocation
The need to relocate inland is necessary as more and more coastal locations can no longer be protected against changes brought by a warming planet.
The Biden-Harris administration announced the launch of a new Voluntary Community-Driven Relocation program, led by the Department of the Interior, to assist tribal communities severely impacted by climate related environmental threats. Through investments from President Biden’s Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and Inflation Reduction Act, the Department is committing $115 million for 11 severely impacted tribes to advance relocation efforts and adaptation planning.
“As part of the federal government’s treaty and trust responsibility to protect Tribal sovereignty and revitalize tribal communities, we must safeguard Indian Country from the intensifying and unique impacts of climate change,” said Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland. “Helping these communities move to safety on their homelands is one of the most important climate related investments we could make in Indian Country.”
The effort starts with 3 Native tribes, which will receive $25 million each to relocate inland away from coastal areas or rivers. The pilot project will begin with moving key buildings onto higher ground and away from rising waters; soon after, homes will follow. The federal government will then give 8 more tribes $5 million each to strategize their migrations. As tribes relocate inland, they will create a blueprint for the federal government to help other communities, Native as well as nontribal, move away from vulnerable areas.
In sum, it is one of the nation’s largest efforts to date to help tribes to leave homelands that are facing an urgent threat from the climate crisis.
“There are tribal communities at risk of being washed away,” President Biden said on Wednesday afternoon at a gathering of tribal leaders. The new funding, he said, will help tribes “move, in some cases, their entire communities back to safer ground.”
The announcement was made during the 2022 White House Tribal Nations Summit, which provides an opportunity for the Administration and tribal leaders from the 574 federally recognized tribes to discuss ways the federal government can invest in and strengthen nation-to-nation relationships as well as ensure that progress in Indian Country endures for years to come. Ahead of the Summit, the Administration expressed that it was “deeply committed to honoring its trust and treaty responsibilities to federally recognized Tribes.”
The Bureau of Indian Affairs administered the funding by analyzing the extent to which tribes had prepared already for relocation and applied 5 criteria, including the amount of risk they currently faced, whether they had selected new sites to move to and their readiness to move. In addition to the Interior Department’s dedicated funds, FEMA has awarded, or is in the process of awarding, approximately $17.7 million to assist the 3 communities in their efforts to acquire, demolish, and build new infrastructure out of harm’s way.
- The Newtok Village, located on the Ninglick River in Alaska, is experiencing progressive coastal erosion from ocean storms and degrading permafrost. Multiple erosion studies conclude that there is no cost effective way to halt this process, and the current rate of erosion of approximately 70 feet per year. That means the river is expected to threaten structures within two years and the village’s critical infrastructure within 4 years.
- The Native Village of Napakiak, located on the Kuskokwim River in Alaska, is experiencing serious erosion that is threatening the school, fuel farm, water supply well, airport, homes, and other critical infrastructure. The ongoing erosion is estimated to be 25-50 feet per year. Most of the current critical infrastructure is expected to be destroyed by 2030.
- The Quinault Indian Nation, located on the Olympic Peninsula in Washington, seeks to relocate its Taholah Village. At the confluence of the Quinault River and Pacific Ocean, it is particularly vulnerable to sea level rise, storm surges, and river flooding. The village also faces tsunami hazards from the more frequent distant earthquakes on the Pacific rim and the more destructive local tsunamis caused by earthquakes near the western coast of the US. The $25 million will make up about one-quarter of the total cost of Quinault’s relocation project.
In December, the federal government will begin a community-driven 120-day planning period that will include the Interior Department and partnering federal agencies traveling to the 3 communities to establish formal relationships and begin the planning process with discussions on:
- the communities’ goals and needs
- the roles and responsibilities of the communities and Federal agencies
- the project scope and components
- timelines, funding, and budget
- risk identification and management
Why Efforts to Relocate Inland is a Step toward Environmental Justice
Moving whole communities, sometimes called managed retreat, is perhaps the most aggressive form of adaptation to climate change. Despite the high initial cost, relocation may save money in the long run by reducing the amount of damage from future disasters, along with the cost of rebuilding after those disasters.
Infusing tribal agency into decisions to relocate inland is part of a paradigm where the value of co-production is seen as a more environmentally just approach than past federal interjection efforts. Key themes have emerged around the need for transparent and equitable policies, self-determination of communities, holistic metrics for assessing individual and community well-being, the importance of culture both as something to be protected and an asset to be leveraged, and the need to address historical and systemic injustices that contribute to vulnerability and exposure to risk.
The hope is that this new government support for community-level relocation can address some of these challenges and infuse agency into tribes as they negotiate variables inherent within the decision to relocate inland. Eight other tribes will get $5 million each to consider whether to relocate and to begin planning for relocation if they decide to do so. They include the Chitimacha Tribe, in Louisiana; the Yurok Tribe, in Northern California; and other Native villages in Alaska.
Water stress and hazards like withering droughts and devastating floods are hitting communities, economies, and ecosystems all over the globe hard. Rainfall patterns are disrupted, glaciers are disappearing, and key lakes are shrinking. Rising water demand, combined with limited and unpredictable supplies, is pressing an urgent need for displacement.
The aim of managed retreat is to proactively move people, structures, and infrastructure out of harm’s way before disasters or other threats occur to avoid damage, maximize benefits, and minimize costs for communities and ecosystems. Beyond the formidable planning, legal, and financial considerations involved, decision makers must also ensure that the people most affected are included in designing and implementing these processes and that the outcomes are equitable for the communities involved.
Throughout the listening sessions that preceded the recent funding, participants discussed challenges and solutions and provided recommendations for ways that federal agencies could empower and assist Tribes in their relocation, managed retreat, and protect-in-place efforts. Hopefully, the Voluntary Community-Driven Relocation program will embrace more tribes equitably and ensure their continued sovereignty.
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