Facing Rising Waters, A Native Tribe Takes Its Plea To Paris Climate Talks

Dec 1, 2015
Originally published on December 2, 2015 4:48 pm

International leaders gathering in Paris to address global warming face increasing pressure to tackle the issue of "climate refugees." Some island nations are already looking to move their people to higher ground, even purchasing land elsewhere in preparation.

In the U.S. Northwest, sea-level rise is forcing a Native American tribe to consider abandoning lands it has inhabited for thousands of years.

The Quinault Indian Nation, whose small village lies at the mouth of the Quinault River on the outer coast of Washington's Olympic Peninsula, now relies on a 2,000-foot-long sea wall to protect it from the encroaching Pacific Ocean.

Small, ramshackle homes back up to the modest wall of rock and gravel. Last March, Quinault Tribal Council President Fawn Sharp got a call in the middle of the night from an elder who lives in one of those homes.

"The ocean breached into his backyard and took out his smokehouse," Sharp says.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers repaired the sea wall, but it's a temporary fix. A more permanent solution is on the table — but it won't be cheap or easy.

The Quinault tribe has developed a $60 million plan to move the entire village of Taholah uphill and out of harm's way. That will mean relocating the school, the courthouse, the police station and the homes of 700 tribal members a safer distance from the encroaching Pacific.

"It's a heavy price tag," Sharp acknowledged, adding that she and others with the Quinault will be turning to Congress, philanthropists and the tribe's own financial resources to pay for the project.

"When it comes to extreme measures taken to adapt to climate change, it does take an entire collaborative approach among agencies. It can't be done alone," she says.

Losing Glaciers

The threat of climate change for the Quinault doesn't end with sea-level rise. Five years ago, the Anderson Glacier, which contributes cool water to the Quinault River at critical times of year, disappeared for good. It had been receding for as long as locals had been photographing it, but Sharp still remembers the day when she saw that it was completely gone.

"In that moment I could feel my heart sinking, thinking that the glacier that feeds the mighty Quinault River has now disappeared," she says.

The absence of the glacier is already being felt. Very little snow fell on the Olympic Mountains this past winter, leading to minimal snowmelt feeding into the Olympic Peninsula's rivers, including the Quinault. Normally, glacial melt supplements river flows late in the summer and early fall.

But without the glacier, the Quinault River was lower than ever recorded. So low that while walking through a newly exposed stretch of riverbed, one tribal member stubbed his toe on what turned out to be a mastodon jaw that may have been submerged since the last ice age.

Hostile Waters For Salmon

For the salmon that migrate home to cool in glacially fed Northwest rivers like the Quinault, things were difficult this year.

Of the 700 people who live in the Quinault village of Taholah, almost half are directly dependent on salmon fishing.

"That fishing ground over there, that ground belongs to my dad," says Shane Underwood, pointing across the water to a man in a small skiff pulling up his net. "My brother fishes that ground, and he has a family of 10 people in his household that he has to support. His sole source of income is fishing."

He's standing at the Quinault fish-processing facility he manages, looking out over the mouth of the river. Lines of gill nets stretch across different spots along the banks, each one representing a tribal family that has been catching returning salmon there for generations.

The warm ocean waters and dry summer have made for a confusing and hostile environment for salmon, which rely on cool river flows to find their way home to spawning grounds above Lake Quinault.

Normally, at this time of year, the Quinault seafood plant processes 70,000 pounds of salmon per day. But Underwood said tribal fishers are catching half of that this season. The tribe has decided to limit fishing days to help more salmon live long enough to spawn.

Shane Underwood's son, David, has been fishing since he was 7. He's now 23.

"It's my favorite thing to do. I want my grandchildren to know what salmon are," he says. "The rivers are a lot warmer now. Climate change could take all our salmon away. Climate change really worries me a lot."

The average American will move 11 times in his or her lifetime, but Native American tribes are place-based. David Underwood says it's hard to explain what relocating would mean for his people.

"We'd pretty much be lost. This place, right here, where we are, is where my people have lived for thousands of years, and each and every member of this tribe, we're all proud Quinault tribal members, proud Native Americans. I don't ever want to leave this place, but if the ocean keeps rising, we're going to have to," he says.

Tribe's 'Balancing Act'

In her role as tribal council president, Sharp has represented her Quinault people at international climate talks before. She traveled to Poznan, Poland, nine years ago for a previous round of climate negotiations.

The Quinault Indian Nation put together a climate adaptation and mitigation strategy at the time. It also had considered signing on to the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, which, as a sovereign nation, it was free to do — despite the fact that the U.S. did not ratify the agreement.

She says she's heartened by the increasing presence of representatives from island nations and other developing countries at the international climate gatherings in recent years. Indigenous peoples around the world are often on the front lines of climate change despite the fact that they contribute the smallest amount of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere.

Sharp says the international community should take note of that disparity.

"And if there are areas where a jurisdiction or an entire nation of people don't have the capacity or financial wherewithal to contend with the issue, then there is a responsibility in other parts of the world to provide that aid and assistance," she says.

Copyright 2015 Puget Sound Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.kuow.org.

Transcript

LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

No matter how climate talks turn out in Paris, the world faces the prospect of climate refugees. Some island nations are already looking to move their people to higher ground. They're even buying land elsewhere. A native tribe in the United States faces a similar choice as sea levels rise. Ashley Ahearn from member station KUOW reports from Washington state's Olympic Peninsula.

ASHLEY AHEARN, BYLINE: Fawn Sharp, the president of the Quinault Indian tribe, still remembers the night last year when the sea spilled into her coastal village.

FAWN SHARP: I received a phone call from a tribal elder who lives not far from here, right next to the ocean, and the ocean breached into his backyard and took out his smokehouse.

AHEARN: The Army Corps repaired the 2,000-foot seawall that protects this community, but it wasn't the first time the ocean broke through. And Sharp says it won't be the last.

SHARP: It will happen. It's not a question of if but when. So we have undertaken a comprehensive effort to relocate our entire village, our courthouse, our law enforcement facilities

AHEARN: The school, hundreds of homes. The relocation plan will cost $60 million - money the tribe doesn't have. They're asking the U.S. government for help and approaching foundations. About a thousand tribal members live in this small community where the Quinault River flows into the Pacific. Half of them make their living fishing, a livelihood that's under threat. With this year's mild winter and drought, the river was warmer and shallower than ever before recorded. Shane Underwood takes me through the Quinault seafood plant. He's the manager here. We walk past large bins of Chinook and Coho salmon, caught right here on the Quinault River.

SHANE UNDERWOOD: Everybody's processing salmon and getting ready for market, so...

AHEARN: How have the fish looked this year? Has it been a good year?

S. UNDERWOOD: No, it hasn't been a great year at all due to all the low water conditions we experienced over the summer. I've never seen it as low as it's been.

AHEARN: Underwood said tribal fishermen were bringing in half as much salmon as they'd normally be catching this time of year. So the tribe closed down fishing altogether to give the remaining fish a break. To make matters worse, the glacier that fed the Quinault River and kept it cool melted away five years ago. Stretches of the river got so dry this summer that when one tribal member was walking through a particularly low patch, he stubbed his toe on what turned out to be a baby mastodon jaw. It had probably been submerged since the last Ice Age. Shane Underwood takes me out onto the pier behind the fish plant. He points across the river to where tribal members in small aluminum skiff's pull their nets out of the water.

S. UNDERWOOD: That fishing ground right over there, that ground belongs to my dad. My brother fishes that ground, and he has a family of 10 people in his household that has to support. And his sole source of income is fishing.

AHEARN: Shane's 23-year-old son David comes out to join us. He's wearing a Notorious B.I.G. T-shirt and a baseball cap. He's been fishing since he was 7, and he's worried.

DAVID UNDERWOOD: Climate change could just take all our salmon away.

AHEARN: I asked David about the plans to relocate his tribe because of sea level rise. He said it's hard to explain to non-native people what it's like to live in the same place for thousands of years.

D. UNDERWOOD: Just wouldn't be the same to live anywhere else. We'd pretty much be lost, you know? I mean, I don't ever want to have to leave this place, but if the ocean keeps rising, we're going to have to. So I hope and pray that something's done about climate change. I really do.

AHEARN: David Underwood's best hope is Paris, where international leaders gather this month. Fawn Sharp, the president of the Quinault, will be attending those climate talks. She says it's hard to stay optimistic when year after year leaders have failed to reach a global accord. But she's going to Paris with an open mind.

SHARP: You come together to contend with the seemingly impossible, but you're part of the solution, and it's that collective will to make a difference to solve this crisis - that's the only way it's going to happen.

AHEARN: Sharp says she'll be pushing developed nations to help not just her people but other indigenous peoples around the world who are on the frontlines of climate change. For NPR News, I'm Ashley Ahearn on the Quinault Indian reservation in Washington. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: In the audio of this story, as in a previous Web version, we say that Quinault Tribal Council President Fawn Sharp will be attending the climate talks in Paris. It turns out that Sharp decided not to attend and that representatives from two other tribes in Washington state are going instead.] Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.