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Climate Change Threatens The Tribe From ‘Twilight’

BY Katie Campbell and Saskia de Melker  July 16, 2012 at 9:20 AM EST

A young member of the Quileute tribe in La Push, WA. NewsHour photo by Saskia de Melker

LA PUSH, WA | With its craggy rocks rising from the sea, frequent whale sightings and white sand beaches, the Washington state community of La Push, located just west of Olympic National Park, is at first glance, idyllic.

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But the beauty of the place is matched by the danger. Located at sea level, La Push lies directly in a flood and tsunami zone. It is home to the Quileute Indian Nation, a tiny tribe that gained popularity for their portrayal in the hit book and movie series “Twilight,”áand their square-mile reservation leaves little land to buffer storms and high waters.

For centuries, the Quileute tribe has relied on the area’s ocean and rivers. Native fishermen and hunters once escaped dangerous weather along territory that stretched across the Olympic Peninsula. But that’s no longer an option. In 1855, the tribe signed a treaty ceding thousands of square miles of land in exchange for fishing and hunting rights. Now, restricted to their small coastal plot, they are facing increasing risks.

University of Washington researchers say that rising temperatures have resulted in reduced snowpack and diminishing glaciers, but also more winter rainfall. Heavy rains have already destroyed vital hunting grounds and homes on the reservation.

“I see water running down the street in the wintertime,” said Lonnie Foster, treasurer of the tribal council, adding that floods come on faster now than when he was a child. “Back then it would take two to three days before [the tides] would come up to the flood level. But now, when it rains hard, it comes up overnight.”

In the nearby Olympic Mountains, glaciers have lost about one third of their mass in the past 30 years, and the resulting ice melt has led to sea level rise. For tribal elders like Chris Morganroth, that means one thing: tsunami danger.

“Because of the water rising and the ocean, a wave that’s created by that tsunami is probably going to reach farther into the rivers,” Morganroth said. “If it happened a hundred years ago, it was probably not as devastating as it might be today.”

The Quileute are already preparing for the worst.

To ensure the survival of their tribe, the Quileute have been entrenched in a 50-year effort to reclaim part of the land that they ceded – most of it on high ground that could keep them safe, while at the same time providing land for tribal members who now live off the reservation. Complicating the struggle was the fact that the land was designated federal government land, part of Olympic National Park

Quileute tribal chairman Tony Foster said there’s irony in fighting so long and hard for land that was theirs to begin with. “If I could rewrite history, we would have had more land base for our community, so we wouldn’t have the struggle that we face today,” he said.

Several Washington Congressmen have taken up the cause including representative Norm Dicks who sponsored the bill.

But there’s also been another, unexpected twist to the tale: Twilight’s Jacob, a shapeshifting werewolf, belongs to the Quileute tribe. In the story, his clan has an ancient treaty with a family of vampires.

While Quileute members have somewhat mixed reactions to their tribe’s role in the hit series, they’re often quick to acknowledge that stardom has helped galvanize their cause.

“It’s brought us a lot of national attention,” said Ann Penn Charles, a tribal member, “You got all these Facebook pages and then, of course you got the media coming out, doing coverage of us, and they got to see that little glimpse of our reservation. It helped us a lot to push Congress.”

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That push finally paid off. In February of this year, Congress passed bill HR 1162 that transfers 785 acres of Olympic National Park back to the tribe.

“The National Park Service doesn’t transfer park lands casually, and it doesn’t happen often,” says Karen Gustin, former superintendent of Olympic National Park who worked to resolve the boundary dispute between the tribe and the park. “The reason this is going through is because it’s a serious life, health, and safety issue for the tribe.” She adds that the park service will also gain something from yielding the land: public access to several of the landmark beaches located on the tribe’s reservation and a large portion of land that the tribe will preserve as wilderness.

The process is still in the early stages. Planning meetings within the tribe and also with key federal agencies began last month and it will likely take years before they are able to fully relocate. Plus, there’s another challenge to overcome: the cost. Full relocation from planning to resettlement is estimated to cost about 25 million dollars. How to pay those costs is still uncertain. Both the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Quileute council said possible avenues for funding could include theáIndian Health Service, áthe Bureau of Indian Affairs or Housing and Urban Development programs, such as Indian Community Development Block Grants.

Despite the challenges, many Quileute say they feel a great sense of victory, hope and relief that the relocation is moving forward.

“Moving to higher ground is essential for us.” Foster said, “because if this place gets wiped out, the Quileutes could be lost forever.”

This week the Quileute Nation is hosting a symposium in Washington D.C. with hundreds of Native Americans, scientists, and policy makers assembling to discuss how tribes can address climate change.

For more reporting on climate and environment in the Pacific Northwest, go to EarthFix, a project of KCTS9.