U. S. to Pay Millions to Move Tribes Threatened by Climate Change

Source: By Christopher Flavelle, New York Times • Posted: Thursday, December 1, 2022

Two tribes in Alaska and a third in Washington State will get $25 million each to retreat to higher ground.

An aerial view of a village at bend in a wide river. The rooftops and ground are covered in light now. The river appears to be solidly frozen. The sky is reddish along the horizon in the distance.
The village of Napakiak, Alaska, which is losing 25 to 50 feet each year to erosion. The Biden administration has awarded it $25 million to relocate away from encroaching water.Emily Farnsworth/U.S. Air Force/Alaska National Guard, via Associated Press

WASHINGTON — The Biden administration will give three Native tribes $75 million to move away from coastal areas or rivers, one of the nation’s largest efforts to date to relocate communities that are facing an urgent threat from climate change.

The three communities — two in Alaska, and one in Washington State — will each get $25 million to move their key buildings onto higher ground and away from rising waters, with the expectation that homes will follow. The federal government will give eight more tribes $5 million each to plan for relocation.

“It gave me goose bumps when I found out we got that money,” said Joseph John Jr., a council member in Newtok, a village in southwest Alaska where the land is quickly eroding. It will receive $25 million to relocate inland. “It will mean a lot to us.”

The project, funded by the Interior Department, is an acknowledgment that a growing number of places around the United States can no longer be protected against changes brought by a warming planet. The spending is meant to create a blueprint for the federal government to help other communities, Native as well as nontribal, move away from vulnerable areas, officials said.

“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.”

President Biden standing in front of a banner reading White House Tribal Nations Summit waving.
President Biden addressed a gathering of tribal leaders at the White House on Wednesday.Doug Mills/The New York Times

Relocating 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.

But relocation is also disruptive. In 2016, the Obama administration gave Louisiana $48 million to relocate the small coastal village of Isle de Jean Charles, which has lost most of its land to the Gulf of Mexico. Residents struggled to agree on where the new village should be built; it wasn’t until this year that people began moving into their new homes.

Another challenge is deciding which places to help first. This year, the Bureau of Indian Affairs held a contest, in which tribal nations applied for up to $3 million in relocation money. Of the 11 tribes that applied, only five received funding; the bureau would not say how it had decided which tribes to help relocate.

The $25 million awards announced on Wednesday, which will fund a significant portion of the cost of relocation, followed a process that was more opaque. According to officials, there was no application process. Instead, the Bureau of Indian Affairs considered tribes that had already done some degree of planning for relocation and applied five criteria, including the amount of risk they currently faced, whether they had selected new sites to move to and their readiness to move.

Some experts expressed concern about how the Interior Department decided which tribes to help relocate.

The lack of a formal application process for the latest relocation grants “strikes me as an unfair way to make funding decisions with such significant implications,” said Samantha L. Montano, an emergency management professor at the Massachusetts Maritime Academy.

“Every community faces some kind of climate risk and will require federal support in mitigating that risk,” Dr. Montano added. “There is no clear plan for how those funding decisions will be made in effective, efficient, or equitable ways.”

A portrait of Fawn Sharp wearing a purple jacket and straw hat.
Fawn Sharp, vice president of the Quinault Nation. “They’re paying attention to us,” she said.Josue Rivas for The New York Times

In addition to Newtok, the other tribes to receive $25 million were Napakiak, a village on the shore of the Kuskokwim River that is losing 25 to 50 feet of land each year to erosion, and the Quinault Indian Nation, on Washington State’s Olympic Peninsula, whose main town, Taholah, faces a growing risk of flooding.

The Quinault nation has selected a new site on higher ground, said Fawn Sharp, the nation’s vice president. She said the new money will be used to build a community center, which will also house a health and wellness center and be the site of general council meetings. The structure will also serve as an emergency evacuation center.

The $25 million will make up about one-quarter of the total cost of Quinault’s relocation project, said Ms. Sharp, who is also president of the National Congress of American Indians.

“For years, our pleas have seemed to fall on deaf ears,” Ms. Sharp said. With the new money, she said, “they’re paying attention to us.”

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.

The federal government needs to learn how to help relocate communities that want to move, said Bryan Newland, assistant secretary for Indian affairs at the Interior Department. The new funding will be a chance for the Bureau of Indian Affairs to learn to coordinate its relocation efforts with other agencies that work on disaster recovery, including the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

“Because of the impact of climate change, it’s unfortunate that this work is necessary,” said Mr. Newland, who is a citizen of the Bay Mills Indian Community. “We have to make sure that tribes can continue to exist, and continue their way of life.”