Many native tribes in Washington are acutely exposed to the effects of climate change. From the Swinomish Reservation on Skagit Bay to Port Gamble on the Hood Canal and LaPush on the Olympic Peninsula, tribal members live on river deltas and low-lying shores unprotected from storm surges and rising seas. Ocean warming and acidification threaten the fish and shellfish species that are central to their diets, incomes and traditions.
Almost nowhere is the risk more apparent than along Sequim Bay, whose shore the Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe hugs like an overhanging cedar tree. A map that WSG Coastal Hazards Specialist Ian Miller prepared for the tribe shows vividly1 how predicted sea level rise will inundate that shoreline. Under severe climate scenarios, the rising sea will reach far up Jimmycomelately Creek and sever State Highway 101, Jamestown’s essential link with the outside world. Coastal flooding will threaten the tribe’s natural resources lab, wastewater tanks and, ironically, its planning offices.
Large cities around the world are numb and helpless in the face of such threats. But the S’Klallams have a long history of taking control of their future. In 1874, after living for thousands of years along what’s now called the Strait of Juan de Fuca, they were loath to be relocated with other groups by the U.S. government to a reservation at the bottom of the Hood Canal. Instead, several families pooled funds to buy 210 acres near Dungeness, the seed of today’s S’Klallam communities. They then fought for official recognition as a tribe, which the government denied because they would not relocate, and finally won it in 1981.
In 2007 the tribe began planning to assess its climate risks. Jamestown S’Klallam wasn’t the first Washington tribe to take that step; the Swinomish Tribe issued a proclamation promising climate action that same year and completed its ambitious “Climate Adaptation Plan” in 2010.2 But Jamestown was the first community on the Olympic Peninsula to step up, and its “Climate Vulnerability Assessment and Adaptation Plan” has helped inspire similar efforts for the Port Gamble S’Klallam tribe and, under Clallam County leadership, the entire North Olympic coast.
Byron Rot, then the Jamestown S’Klallam Habitat Program Manager, supervised the climate assessment. Environmental Planning Manager Hansi Halls obtained EPA support funds, then took over supervision when Rot left Jamestown. The tribe turned to Sascha Petersen of the Austin-based consultancy Adaptation International to conduct the assessment and he in turn enlisted Ian Miller. Port Angeles-based Miller, an oceanographer and geomorphologist who had already written a climate assessment for the Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary, was the natural choice for the scientific aspects —“the right guy in the right location,” as Rot puts it. Miller and WSG Coastal Management Specialist Nicole Faghin also helped a team of University of Washington graduate students create a social marketing plan for the project.
Together, the student team convened a two-day workshop to ask tribal representatives what their concerns were. “We got direction from the tribal council, elders, subsistence fishermen and executive staff so we could do some reality checking on what we were doing,” explains Halls, “to make sure it wasn’t what we thought was important.” The representatives’ answers were sometimes surprising. “There was more emphasis than I would have given to the transportation corridor, but it made sense, looking through a broader lens.”
The S’Klallams rated Highway 101 as a “high priority” for protection, as well as the tribal water supply and 7 Cedars Casino and Resort, a main employer and revenue source. But they rated several natural resources even higher: salmon, shellfish, waters uncontaminated by harmful algal blooms and the cedar bark “withes” they harvest each spring to weave traditional baskets, a skill imparted to Jamestown children as a cultural touchstone. Already, says Elaine Grinnell, an elder on the panel, the window when the withes are moist and supple enough to be peeled from the trees is narrowing and coming earlier. “It used to not start until June, in some places not until the Fourth of July,” she says. “Now you start in May, and it dries out faster.”
Grinnell has seen other changes in the bay where she harvests shellfish. The offshore sandbar has moved east a mile or more, and what was firm sandy bottom is now deep “sucky mud” that nearly drowned her young grandson. The cockles still do well, the clams less so. “That’s probably the river,” she acknowledges — but warmer, wetter springs can mean more floods washing down silt.
“We succeeded because we had a lot of engagement with tribal elders,” says Miller. “We needed that, not just for community buy-in but for the cultural history they carry.” Outside experts like him don’t remember the days before sucky mud, when the cedar withes were still fresh in July.
1 Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe (accessed Nov. 1, 2016) Blyn sea level rise (high severity), jamestowntribe.org/programs/nrs/nrs_climchg.htm
2 Swinomish Tribe (accessed Nov. 1, 2016) Swinomish climate change initiative, swinomish.org/climate_change/climate_main.html