U.S. Interior Secretary: Western Washington tribes ‘on point end of spear’ in climate change
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Suquamish Chairman Leonard Forsman, left, talks Thursday with U.S. Interior Secretary Sally Jewell as U.S. Rep. Derek Kilmer, D-Gig Harbor, looks on. Joe Smillie/Peninsula Daily News

By Joe Smillie
Peninsula Daily News

BAINBRIDGE ISLAND –– The federal government has a “moral obligation” to act to offset rising sea levels and protect wildlife habitat threatened by a changing climate, U.S. Interior Secretary Sally Jewell told leaders of Western Washington tribes Thursday.

“We see it everywhere we go,” Jewell said of climate change impacts.

“You’re really, in many ways, on the point end of the spear when it comes to climate change.”

Jewell, a University of Washington alumna and former CEO of REI, delivered the keynote address at a one-day summit of the nine tribes in the 6th Congressional District organized by Rep. Derek Kilmer, D-Gig Harbor, and hosted by the Suquamish tribe.

Six of those tribes — the Quileute, Hoh, Quinault, Makah, Lower Elwha Klallam and Jamestown S’Klallam — are based in or have land in Clallam or Jefferson counties.

Joining Jewell were Larry Roberts, principal deputy assistant secretary-Indian Affairs, and Stanley Speaks, Northwest regional director of the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

“We have coastal tribes that are dealing with very real challenges in regard to rising sea levels and facing relocation,” Kilmer said.

The Quileute in LaPush and Hoh on the Hoh River mouth on the Pacific Coast are relocating their villages upland to avoid a rising sea.

“I don’t know that you could ever be prepared enough for something tragic like that,” Quileute Chairman Chas Woodruff said.

Said Hoh Chairwoman Maria Lopez: “It’s a reality that we need to get out of the tsunami zone.”

In 2010, Congress passed legislation that transferred 37 acres of Olympic National Park to the Hoh tribe and placed another 425 acres it had bought over the past three years into trust.

In February 2012, legislation gave the Quileute tribe 785 acres of the park and 510 acres of ceremonial land to resolve a decades-long boundary dispute with the park.

Jewell said actions like that are what drew her to the Interior position.

“One of the reasons I took this job is we have a chance under the current administration to do something about it,” she said.

“The natural resources for everyone in this room is what we do. It was our economy,” said Jeromy Sullivan, chairman of the Port Gamble S’Klallam tribe of the Kitsap Peninsula.

But decades of development have threatened the habitat that supported wildlife and native plants, many said.

“The Puget Sound is poisoned,” said Billy Frank, chairman of the Northwest Indians Fisheries Commission. “We cannot allow that poison to take over our country”

Jewell called for smarter defenses against climate change.

“It’s time to turn our front to our rivers and our watersheds and our ecosystems,” she said.

“We have a pretty spectacular place here that can show what can be if we let Mother Nature do her work”

She also said her department is “very, very committed to streamlining its land buyback program.”

The federal government is buying parcels of land that has been “fractionated” among heirs of the original owners — meaning some plots are owned by hundreds of people.

Interior then puts the land into trust for the tribes.

The Makah reservation is the second in the nation to be part of the buyback program.

The buyback stems from a $3.4 billion class-action settlement in 2012 of a suit brought by Elouise Cobell, a Blackfeet woman, against the U.S. government for mismanaging royalties from oil, gas, grazing and timber rights on tribal lands.

Jewell noted that the Quinault tribe north of Aberdeen, which straddles Jefferson and Grays Harbor counties, is close to finalizing an agreement to participate in the program.

The Interior secretary also stressed the need to solidify the tribes’ economic base.

“We need jobs for people in Indian Country,” Jewell said.

She added that opportunities exist for Native students to graduate into industries that can protect the environments of reservations while strengthening the tribes’ abilities to be self-sufficient.

Leaders of West End tribes called for help in bringing broadband infrastructure to their remote lands to train students.

New upland developments will not be able to get Internet connections, Lopez said.

Makah Chairman T.J. Greene said a lack of broadband is a particular problem for schools at Neah Bay.

Students taking state tests wait anxiously to see whether their online standardized tests are delivered over the school’s weak Internet connection, he said.

“Every computer in the district is shut down so 15 students can take those tests,” Greene said.

“I can only imagine what they could accomplish if they had access to broadband.”

Greene and Frances Charles, chairwoman of the Lower Elwha Klallam, invited Jewell to visit their homelands.

“Please come next year because we are having a celebration once the last dam is finally out,” Charles said.

The last 30 feet of Glines Canyon Dam, once a 210-foot-tall edifice that created Lake Mills, are expected to be removed later this year as part of the $325 million Elwha River dam-removal and restoration project begun in September 2011 to free the river to migrating salmon.

The 108-foot-tall, century-old Elwha Dam was removed by March 2012.

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Sequim-Dungeness Valley Editor Joe Smillie can be reached at 360-681-2390, ext. 5052, or at jsmillie@peninsuladailynews.com.

Last modified: April 24. 2014 6:52PM
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