PORTLAND, Ore. - Walter Ward swept an arm over a pebbled beach, backed by a tight wall of evergreens and strewn with logs tossed by passing storms. Ward grew up on this piece of northern Washington coast, in a thriving Hoh tribal village that was here ;'forever,'' he said. ''The houses used to be along the top of the hill, and all along the beaches.''
Artifacts in the area date back 12,000 years. Today, all that's left of his childhood home are two vacant houses and a road nibbled away by an ever-encroaching ocean.
Four Washington tribes inhabit low-lying land along the west coast of Olympic National Park on the Olympic Peninsula. The Hoh, Quinault, Quileute and Makah have coped with the threat of storms and tsunamis for thousands of years. Now, they may become some of the West's earliest victims of climate change, as rising sea levels and its other impacts endanger their villages and their history.
''The area is relatively vulnerable,'' said Patty Glick, global warming specialist and author of a recent National Wildlife Federation report, ''Sea Level Rise and Coastal Habitats in the Pacific Northwest.'' Tectonic rise - an uplifting of land along the coast - makes it difficult for scientists to determine just how a rise will affect the region, she said; but higher wave action, wave force and destructive storm surges will increase in the coming decade.
Destructive storms such as the hurricanes that roared through last December and in November 2006 are another early manifestation, and will become more frequent, Glick said. Researchers with the University of Washington Climate Impacts Group predict a rise from a very low probability to a high end of 14 inches by mid-century and 35 inches by 2100.
''Tribal members were seemingly unaware of the NWF study. Interest in this story was a wake-up call to many. If we lose the clam beds, well, that is who we are,'' said Larry Ralston, Quinault chief of police. ''The cultural and subsistence significance of this is dramatic.'' Ralston likens the peril to ''a slow-moving tsunami.''
Tsunamis are another threat so unnerving many back their cars in for a quick escape. To cope with the looming climatic changes, the tribes need higher ground - and to get it Olympic National Park has to return it, including designated wilderness. The proposal pits tribes against environmentalists, raising hackles among some wilderness preservation groups.
''On the one hand, you have the big supporters of national wilderness; then you have these tribes whose lands they were given are not going to work for them in the long term,'' said Bonnie Phillips, president of the local Olympic Forest Coalition.
The 135-mile Olympic coastline is a national marine sanctuary, and the adjacent Olympic National Park is also a United Nations World Heritage Site and International Biosphere Reserve.
Ninety-five percent of Olympic is designated wilderness. It's a remote area of wilderness, rainforest, four Indian reservations and 13,000 non-tribal residents. The Quinault reservation at the park's southern end and the Makah at the northwestern tip have land sufficient to absorb some impact from rising seas; but not so for the tiny Quileute reservation, with just one square mile bounded by ocean, and park on the other three sides.
For 50 years, the Quileute have asked for park land to move their school, homes and other buildings out of the flood zone - with no success. Two years ago, an 18-foot wave swept enormous tree trunks against the Quileute school, increasing the tribe's anxiety. The next summer, the tribe began clearing some existing uphill land to move the school and playground, and build additional homes.
In 2006, the Quileute played their trump card: Rialto Beach, eight acres at the mouth of the Quillayute River that's one of the park's most exquisite tourist attractions. Rialto Beach was reserved for the tribe in 1881, but a 1910 storm shifted the river's northern boundary; the park later laid claim, using a 1914 survey, and put in a parking lot and restroom.
James Jaime, the tribe's executive director, announced the tribal council's intent to close the beach unless the park entered into good faith negotiations. In exchange for returning Rialto Beach and access to the parking lot and trailhead on tribal lands that leads to Second Beach, the tribe is ''willing to settle'' for 750 acres of national park land, Jaime said.
He described the two parcels on the river's flood zone that the tribe believes it already owns, both unsuitable for development. Of the remaining 275 high elevation acres of park land, only 200 acres are developable. Some are designated wilderness that will have buffer zones after a survey determines those specific areas. The school, homes and other buildings will be moved to the higher ground, and new homes built for their growing population.
The Quileute tribe does not agree that all the property, particularly those along the river, is owned by the park.
Thirty percent of the Olympic coast ''is very highly vulnerable to future sea level rise,'' said park spokesman Barb Maynes, citing the park's newly released general management plan. Despite that recognition, it's not yet a topic of discussion with the tribes. ''It doesn't mean we're not concerned about rising sea levels. But our discussions have focused on the resolution of boundary disputes.''
''The agreement simply clears up any claim to these areas and specifically identifies the tribe as the owner,'' Jaime said. The park has worked ''intensely'' the last two years, Maynes said, addressing ''longstanding issues'' between the northern boundary of the Quileute and the park.
''Almost any rise is going to take our beach out, completely wipe it out,'' Ward said. ''We're not big like the other tribes - we've got barely enough to survive.'' The tribe has 440 acres. The Hoh recently began formal negotiations for 20 acres of adjoining parkland.
''Whichever way you cut it, it's going to set a precedent,'' Jaime said. ''Never before has any wilderness been taken out of the park.'' In fact, wilderness has never been taken out of any national park. Congress has to approve any boundary change and the likelihood of that, Behan said, ''is something none of us can answer.''
What's poignant here, said NWF's Glick, ''is how our treatment of initially threatened populations portends for how we will deal with the impact nationwide,'' and refers to the enormous disproportionality on vulnerable populations, ''minorities, poor people and developing countries, those most likely to face impacts soon and least likely to deal with them.''
NWF advocates the establishment of a dedicated source of funding as part of national climate change policy, to help at-risk communities cope with the changes wrought by a changing climate.
''Like some of the villages have already had to do in Alaska. That may well mean relocation, but we should also give the tribes a voice in support of meaningful action,'' Glick said.
The Lieberman-Warner climate bill, she pointed out, allocates 0.5 percent to the tribes.
''While the percentage of overall funds allocated to tribes is relatively small, that still means a fair amount of money: $451 million in 2012 and progressively more each year, with $884 million allocated by 2049.''
George Nickas, executive director of the national pro-preservation Wilderness Watch, seems to appreciate their needs. ''The physical impacts of climate change are bad. The social impacts are equally so. There's no where else to go now.''