Moving Taholah Village Before It’s Swallowed by the Sea

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Members of the Quinault Indian Nation are working on a relocation master plan to move their village to higher ground—but it may be too late.

By Josh Cohen

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The close proximity of the lower Tahola Village to the sea. (Photo: Josh Cohen)

On the rugged Washington coast, where the mouth of the Quinault River spills into the Pacific Ocean, sits a tiny Quinault Indian Nation village called Taholah. Most of Taholah’s homes and businesses are located near the water in the lower village, a half-square-mile area bordered by the Quinault River to the north and ocean to the west. Years of fierce storms and the realities of pervasive poverty have left their mark on battered buildings, but the lower village remains the heart of the neighborhood. It has the K-12 school, a head start preschool, a community center, a history museum, a senior center, a couple of seafood wholesalers, a gas station, and about 175 homes.

Someday, it will all be under water.

The inundation could be quick or it could come inch by inch over centuries. The worst-case scenario is this: Taholah sits in the Cascadia subduction zone, a 1,000-mile fault line between the Juan de Fuca and North American tectonic plates. Eventually, the tectonic plates will slip, causing a massive earthquake followed by a tsunami that will wash the village into the sea.

“Minority communities and, in Alaska especially, indigenous communities are disproportionately impacted. It’s our responsibility to make sure we are amplifying those voices with the platform we have built and are privileged to have.”

But even if a disastrous earthquake doesn’t strike any time soon, lower Taholah will still likely fall victim to flooding tides. As the planet warms and sea levels rise, the high tide line will eventually rise above the town’s seawall, then above the town itself. A recent sea level rise model from Climate Central shows that, if humans continue emitting carbon at their current rate, the planet will warm by four degrees Celsius and Taholah will be fully inundated within the next several hundred years. Even if humanity manages to avoid that degree of warming, a two-degree rise in global temperatures — which most scientists agree would take huge efforts to avoid at this point — would still flood most of the village.

Residents have already gotten a taste of the sea rise to come. In March of 2014, powerful waves breached the town’s seawall during a storm and flooded several homes and buildings near the beach. In response, Quinault President Fawn Sharp declared a state of emergency and issued a voluntary evacuation order. The Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Army Corps of Engineers came and reinforced the existing seawall, but, according to Sharp, the fix was meant to be temporary, lasting two years to give them time to implement more permanent solutions.

The Quinault are in the midst of one of those solutions. Funded by a grant from the Administration for Native Americans, the Quinault have hired three planners to create a relocation master plan to move the lower village about a half-mile away to higher ground.

Taholah has been at its current site on the coast for at least as long as Quinault have had oral history and, according to Sharp, likely longer. The Quinault would meet and trade with other tribes on beaches near the village. The river’s endemic salmon species brought people to Taholah from the south, inland, and Canada. In modern times, the village has played host to the annual Chief Taholah Days celebration; has hosted the Tribal Canoe Journeys, a celebration of indigenous peoples of the Pacific Northwest coast; and more.

“From our perspective [the village has been there] from time immemorial,” Sharp says. “With regards to our feelings about moving uphill, it’s really sad … a lot of historic things happened here.”

Recognizing the tsunami risk, the tribe moved its health clinic and emergency services to higher ground about 10 years ago. Moving the remainder of the village will be a much more costly challenge. Over two-thirds of Taholah’s 900 residents live in the lower village, including 100 tribal elders. About 150 students attend school there. The fire and police department, tribal court, senior services, office space for 60 tribal employees, and other services will also need to make the move.

“It’s a very long and arduous process to say the least,” Quinault Vice President Tyson Johnston says. “It’s very expensive to relocate infrastructure.”

Sea level rise is a pressing concern, but it is just one of several ways climate change is impacting the Quinault Nation. By 2009, the Anderson Glacier, which helps feeds the Quinault River, had receded by 90 percent from its 1927 size. The glacial melt helps regulate the river temperature. Without it, the river is warming, which harms the sockeye salmon that Quinault have fished for millennia. The glacier also used to provide a protective blanket of snow and ice. No longer absorbed by the glacier, rainstorms can carry dirt, mud, and debris off the mountainside and into the river where the silt can clog the gills of young salmon. If that weren’t enough, sockeye numbers have also been hurt by ocean acidification.

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Fawn Sharp, president of the Quinault Indian Nation. (Photo: Quinault Indian Nation)

Johnston says the changes are putting people on edge. “There’s the unnaturally hot weather. The terrible salmon runs that have traditionally been much stronger. Certain kinds of bugs from further south that you’re now seeing here. Community wide, we know climate change is real and it’s affecting our way of life.”

Conversations about climate change tend to get framed around the unavoidable catastrophes of the future wrought by our actions today. But the Quinault Nation is experiencing the impacts of climate change right now, and it’s irrevocably altering the community’s way of life.

Many of the issues that the Quinault Nation is grappling with now — rising seas, unprecedented heat, transforming ecosystems, and survival through adaptation — mirror the problems facing environmental conservation groups such as National Wildlife Federation, the Sierra Club, and many others.

Once rooted in the work of protecting wild lands and animals by fighting development, restoring habitat, blocking bulldozers, and the like, conservation work is adapting to the unprecedented threats of climate change. Conservation groups are finding themselves engaged in work that looks as much like social justice advocacy as it does environmentalism, collaborating with unexpected partners, and putting tremendous effort and resources into stemming the literal tides of climate change before there’s no planet left to conserve.

No longer absorbed by the glacier, rainstorms can carry dirt, mud, and debris off the mountainside and into the river where the silt can clog the gills of young salmon.

Of course, they aren’t just beginning to realize climate change is a problem. Patty Glick, the NWF’s senior global warming specialist, has been leading the wildlife conservation group’s climate change advocacy for over 17 years. As the cultural acceptance of climate change has shifted, the movement has been able to move from simply screaming about the reality of climate change to discussing more substantive solutions.

“When I came to the NWF and really started to talk about resilience and adaptation, the conservation community … was very hesitant to even talk about the need to adapt,” Glick says. “Their concern, legitimate or not, was that, as soon as we started talking about the need to deal with impacts, we were throwing up our hands and saying we can’t do anything to reduce climate change, so let’s just prepare.”

She continues: “We need to do both. We need to prepare for the best-case scenarios and work like hell to prevent the worst-case scenarios through mitigation.”

Glick’s work centers on climate research as it relates to wildlife populations and habitat, as well as outreach and advocacy with elected officials, businesses, and other stakeholders around climate adaptation.

For the NWF and others, climate change has necessitated a focus on the future rather than the past. “Some of our traditional goals of restoring historic populations to their native ranges are probably no longer tenable,” Glick says. “It’s requiring the conservation community to think about how we can create the desired future conditions for these species.”

For the Sierra Club, the realities of climate change have led to a similar pivot. “One of the things we’re seeing as climate change accelerates is that it’s becoming increasingly hard to plan for impacts,” says Alli Harvey, a representative for the Sierra Club’s Our Wild America campaign in Alaska. “That impact is so sweeping and pervasive that it’s really forcing traditional conservation groups, the Sierra Club included, to take a hard look at the way we prioritize our work, communicate about our work, and who’s at the table having those discussions.”

Her campaign is focused on fighting oil and gas drilling in Alaska and the Arctic. While that still involves lobbying, grassroots organizing, and public awareness campaigns, Harvey says the Sierra Club is working with far broader coalitions than they had in previous generations.

“Our focus, to some extent, will always be about protecting landscapes, but as we’ve evolved, it’s become a lot more about people … you’re really looking at this as more of a social justice issue,” Harvey says. “Minority communities and, in Alaska especially, indigenous communities are disproportionately impacted. It’s our responsibility to make sure we are amplifying those voices with the platform we have built and are privileged to have.”

The Sierra Club has been working closely with indigenous Alaskans from Shishmaref, a tiny town on Sarichef Island in the Chukchi Sea. The threat of sea rise is imminent there and, like Taholah, Shishmaref is in the process of trying to relocate to higher ground.

Glick says the NWF has also been working with new partners from federal agencies, such as FEMA and the Army Corps of Engineers, whose projects have at times damaged wildlife habitats. “We’re working with groups that perhaps sometimes have been at odds with the conservation community like the Army Corps of Engineers,” she says. “We’ve been able to find common ground and be creative about addressing these common challenges.”

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A sign marking the entrance to the Quinault Indian Nation. (Photo: Josh Cohen)

Similarly, Glick says one of their most outspoken partners on ocean acidification is Taylor Shellfish, a large Washington-based seafood company that’s moved some of its hatchery operations to Kauai, where acidification is less detrimental.

But though climate change has become a central issue in the conservation community, Glick and Harvey agree that the traditional roots of conservation work are critical. After all, the development and drilling and logging that inspired many conservation groups to form in the first place are also the things exacerbating climate change.

“The case for keeping some places just wild and intact is more pressing than ever,” Harvey says. The Earth “is a very finite resource and once you mess with an ecosystem there’s really no restoring it back to its original state.”

Back in Taholah, Sharp and her colleagues aren’t sitting by idly as the waters rise. Like the national conservation groups, the Quinault are working on both high-level policy advocacy and on-the-ground restoration projects. Sharp recently testified in Washington, D.C., at a congressional appropriations committee meeting in support of the Tribal Coastal Resiliency Act. Sponsored by Washington Representative Derek Kilmer, the bill would provide tribes access to federal funding for climate planning and mitigation without needing to declare a state of emergency.

“Up until this point we’ve only been able to access dollars in an emergency,” Sharp says. “There’s no provision for us to do long-range planning. That’s been a major barrier for us.”

The tribe is also looking for more creative opportunities. It might, for example, sell carbon credits on the global carbon trading market based on the CO2 absorbed by their 200,000 acres of forestland. A domestic company cannot participate in the global market because the United States is not a Kyoto Protocol signatory — but Quinault can as a sovereign nation. That means they can trade carbon sequestration at the global rate, which is as much as 10 times as the U.S. rate of $2–3 per metric ton.

“We’re working with groups that perhaps sometimes have been at odds with the conservation community like the Army Corps of Engineers,”

“Tribes are uniquely positioned to capture some of the opportunity that’s going to be part of the future green economy,” Sharp says.

At the same time, the Quinault are engaged in traditional habitat restoration work along the Quinault River to try and restore the sockeye populations. Historical clearcutting in the river basin wreaked havoc on the ecosystem, but Sharp says their riparian habitat restoration projects are slowly having a positive impact on fish populations.

“Many scientists are finding that many indigenous practices are the best practices,” Sharp says. “When we went to Poland for COP14 I made a point to meet with other countries, and that was my message. To solve this global crisis it’s going to take all forms of knowledge. It’s going to take economics. It’s going to take science. But culture and history is an important part of that mix.”

Sharp also knows that it is going to take serious forethought.

“We’re not going to solve this in our lifetime,” she says. “We need to do the best we can, put our best effort forward, make the best decisions we can to ensure that the generation that follows us will have good standing to execute the things we know need to be accomplished. These are legacy projects that go beyond our lifetime.”

Today, the relocation effort is still in its early stages. Once the master plan is completed in 2016, Quinault leadership will use the document to lobby the federal government for the funding necessary to make the move. Johnston says it’ll likely be at least five to 10 years before they can actually move the village. In the meantime, Taholah will continue hoping for the best, doing tsunami drills to prepare for the worst, and mobilizing against a global problem they had little role in creating.

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The Conservation in the Age of Climate Change Project is an effort to explore how conservation organizations around the world are responding to rising seas, droughts, extreme weather events, and other threats posed by global warming.

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