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Climate Change: Mankind Must Stop Destroying ‘Our Own Mystical Place’

Plants were blooming in the middle of winter near the Cascade Mountain Range; the Iditarod had to be moved almost 300 miles from Willows to Fairbanks due to lack of snow for the mushers; and California could run out of water in a year.

These are drastic indications that things are amiss, said American Indian leaders meeting in Portland, Oregon earlier this month. To them it was obvious that climate change is already here and that collaboration is necessary in order for tribes to survive and thrive.

They gathered, spoke and strategized at the Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians Tribal Leaders Summit on Climate Change on March 10 and 11 in Portland, Oregon. Sponsored by the Institute for Tribal Government at Portland State University and the Department of Interior-Northwest Climate Science Center, the conference brought together tribal, federal, regional and state agencies and leaders to discuss the climate change crisis facing our world. Tribes from all over the northwest, including Idaho, Montana and Alaska, were represented and shared their concerns, and the theme that emerged was one of unity.

“Climate change is affecting the whole planet…the food and everything is out of balance,” said Shoshone-Bannock Tribes Vice-Chairman Lee Juan Tyler, addressing attendees on the second day. “We need to sit together for our future. Men are going to destroy our own mystical place if we don’t.”

The evidence was right outside the window.

The nearby peaks of the Cascades have been experiencing record low snowfall compared to past years. Some mountain areas were even devoid of snow this past winter. In Portland, bushes and flowers began blooming in late January, with some local rhododendrons bursting forth in February.

“The climate of the Northwest is changing,” says the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) website. “Over the last century, the average annual temperature rose by 1.5°F, with increases in some areas up to 4°F. Changes in snowpack, stream flows and forest cover are already occurring. Future climate change will likely continue to influence these changes. Average annual temperature in the region is projected to increase by 3-10°F by the end of the century. Winter precipitation is projected to increase while summer precipitation is projected to decrease, though precipitation projections are less certain than those related to temperature. Future climate change impacts would be compounded by pressures related to the region's rapidly growing population.”

Farther south, California is well into its fourth year of drought. But the changes have been evident for much longer than that.

“Up in Alaska we’ve been dealing with climate issues for over 50 years,” said Dennis Katzeek, Athabascan, emphasizing the importance of trees as he urged that people take action. “Planting one tree can make all the difference to future generations. We are the stewards of the land.”

Climate change issues locally, regionally, nationally and internationally were discussed, providing additional information to attendees from the EPA, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Also involved were a Tribal Leadership Panel consisting of Jamie Donatuto, PhD, from Swinomish; Salish Kootenai Environmental Director Mike Durglo; Kathy Lynn, Tribal Climate Change Project Coordinator for the Pacific NW Climate Change Networks, and Cornilia Rindt, Director of Ecosystem Services, among others.

The conference provided a solid foundation of expertise, experience, knowledge and ideas shared by presenters and attendees alike. Attendees posed questions and expressed great concern about climate change. Many suggested that tribes exercise sovereignty and reach out to other nations across the globe, partnering to create solutions for issues such as ocean acidification and methods of adaptation, as well as to help try and reverse climate change, or at least mitigate its effects on the planet and all her denizens.

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“The summit really focused on tribal resources, tribal sovereignty and the impact of climate change on tribal communities,” said Don Sampson, Umatilla, executive director for the Institute for Tribal Government and coordinator for the ATNI Climate Change Project. “It’s not that tribes don’t believe in what’s happening. It’s not like some public citizens who say, ‘Well, it is or isn’t happening.’ [Tribes] are clear and very convinced that it’s affecting their communities today—their lifestyles, the gathering of traditional foods, their treaty-protected resources like salmon.”

Many topics were discussed, and due to the limited time, people focused on their needs. Tribes were looking for “an action plan to move forward and the resources from the federal government to do so,” as Sampson put it.

“The takeaway is we have an incredible brain trust in the northwest,” said Fawn Sharp, Quinault Tribal Chairwoman and President of ATNI. “We have some amazing tribal leadership. We have some excellent partners. So I think we have the foundational pieces to really build a very strong Northwest agenda.”

She expressed appreciation for the presence of the United South and Eastern Tribes (USET), which added to the unified effort that tribes are making to address climate issues.

“Between the West Coast and the East Coast, we are on our way to building a very strong climate change agenda for Indian country,” Sharp said. “We face a daunting future. Right now we are in a crisis—there are wildfires in Idaho, in the dead of winter. People are going to become more and more desperate for solutions. Let’s lead the way.”

The unity theme extended to the personal level, as attendees made new connections and renewed ties.

“On a personal level, I appreciated the opportunity to connect with friends and meet new people,” said Arwen Bird, Climate Boot Camp Coordinator for the NW Climate Science Center at the University of Washington, heartened by the diverse audience at this vital meeting. “It’s important for me to be with people who do not view culture as separate from natural resources. I learned a lot as I listened to people share the breadth and depth of how climate change is affecting them. I appreciate being able to hear people share from their hearts. Attending the ATNI conference generated a surge of energy and ideas that will help in planning the NW CSC’s climate boot camp.”

There was also a sense of urgency.

“We need to act on greenhouse gas, which is the real reason we have climate change and ocean acidification,” said one of the speakers, Heida Adelsman, Executive Policy Advisor for the Washington State Department of Ecology, sharing information about the Pacific Coast Climate Action Plan and the dangers posed by ocean acidification. “The time to act is now. We cannot leave it in the hands of others. Ocean acidification is an urgent issue for us on the west coast. The PCC [Pacific Coast Collaborative] leaders have demonstrated that transitioning to a low-carbon economy can create jobs and support economic growth. Engaging the tribes is something we don’t even think about, it’s something that we do.”

The youth in attendance, those under 30, were asked to stand and witness the conference as Sampson emphasized the importance of their involvement.

“I think that the next generation needs to be engaged, and they’re going to be the ones who pick this up,” Sampson said. “So, that’s kind of the long-term goal. The tribes are mobilized, they understand the spiritual connection, they can start responding … by educating their own communities, as well as educating the youth.”

Next, Sampson said, the group will compile the input received from tribal leaders at the conference, as well as information from some of the conservation organizations that were represented, and craft an action plan to be adopted at the May ATNI conference in Warm Springs. That will then be forwarded to the National Congress on American Indians (NCAI), as well as to states, counties and other partners who are neighbors of tribes or may affect tribal resources, he said.