Quileute Is Moving to Higher Ground

President Barack Obama on February 27 signed a law transferring 772 acres of Olympic National Park land to the Quileute Nation, providing higher ground for a village that averages 10-15 feet above sea level. H.R. 1162 was approved 381-7 by the House on February 6 and unanimously by the Senate on February 13. It was forwarded to the President for signature on February 16.

LA PUSH, Wash. – Risk of tsunami is something that has always been top-of-mind for residents of this Quileute village on the Pacific Ocean.

The ancestors told of a flood that carried the Chimakum, a Quileute band, away in their canoes through a passageway in the Olympic Mountains and deposited them near Hood Canal some 100 miles east.

Today, Tony Foster vividly remembers as a child when the storm tides would come and the lower village would be evacuated. Relatives would board up his grandmother’s home and the family would leave until the storm subsided.

And now, debris washing up on Quileute’s shores from the March 11, 2011 quake and tsunami in Japan is a reminder that what happened on the other side of the Pacific could happen here.

Indeed. On the Senate floor February 13, Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., told of how 80 children go to a school that is just one foot above sea level. “And every day they look directly out the window at the roaring waves of the powerful ocean and wonder when they can move to safer, higher ground,” she said. “… And the river that runs through the reservation has been moving constantly over the last century, causing more erosion and flooding problems. The one road that connects the lower village to higher ground is often flooded, making it even more challenging to deal with this particular area in the case of a tsunami.”

Foster, who is now Quileute’s chairman, tsunami is not a matter of if, but when.

“That woke up a lot of people in Congress that it’s a reality, that something like that could happen here,” Foster said of the Japan tsunami in an interview with Indian Country Today Media Network. “This winter, the tribe is receiving constant reminders of the danger it faces from the high water and coastal flooding that have occurred in the past several weeks. On (February 4), the USGS reported a magnitude 5.7 earthquake off the coast of Vancouver Island. This is an ominous reminder of the imminent danger facing our tiny village.”

Life is about to change on the Quileute reservation. President Barack Obama on February 27 signed a law transferring 772 acres of Olympic National Park land to the Quileute Nation, providing higher ground for a village that averages 10-15 feet above sea level. 

H.R. 1162 was approved 381-7 by the House on February 6 and unanimously by the Senate on February 13. It was forwarded to the President for signature on February 16.

“The President’s signature on the bill represents one of the most historic days in Quileute history,” Quileute spokeswoman Jackie Jacobs said February 27 in an e-mail to ICTMN. The land will be added to private land which Quileute has purchased to form a contiguous area upon which its administration offices, elder center, school, day care center and several homes will be built.

The transfer settles a 50-year dispute between the Olympic National Park and Quileute over the northern boundary of the reservation, including land lost to the National Park because of changes in the Quillayute River’s course. In addition, the bill guarantees permanent public access to the magnificent Rialto and Second beaches on the Quileute reservation.

In an interview before he left for Washington, D.C. to thank congressional and other leaders for their support of the legislation, Foster said it could be several years before the village is moved to higher ground. There must first be meetings between the community and the council. Land surveys must be done, roads built and utilities installed. “We’re going to take it one step at a time,” Foster said, adding that moving the school and the elder center top the priority list. The future of existing buildings in the flood and tsunami zone has not been decided, he said.

Quileute Nation Executive Director Larry Burtness said the council has established a Community Planning Committee that will be involved in the planning and discussions of the move to higher ground. Most of the acreage is second-growth forest; the land was owned by ITT Rayonier before it was transferred to the National Park and now to Quileute.

“Though the planning for building is beginning immediately, it is critical to allocate sufficient time for proper planning, design and engineering,” he said in an e-mail to ICTMN. “The process of surveying the property, developing and approving plans for roads, utilities, platting the land will likely take us into 2013 before significant construction can begin.

“There are several possible avenues for funding the related development, including Indian Health Service, Bureau of Indian Affairs, Housing and Urban Development programs such as Indian Community Development Block Grants.”

Jacobs said Foster will meet with officials from the Interior Department, National Park Service and BIA to discuss implementation of the legislation and ways to accelerate the relocation to higher ground. “The number of homes in the lower village is approximately 40. Residents of the lower village will be afforded the opportunity to move to higher ground, but it will be a decision each tribal member makes for themselves," Jacobs said February 27.

Historically, the Quileute people would move with the seasons within their expansive territory. After the treaty was signed, movement was limited to a 1.5-square-mile reservation bordered by the Pacific Ocean, the Olympic National Forest and the flood-prone Quillayute River, which is fed by mountain snowmelt and 115 inches of rainfall a year.

La Push is a center of oceanfront commercial, community and marine-related activity, some 10-15 feet above sea level. Most visitors to La Push, attracted by the dramatic beauty of the rugged coastline, stay in the Quileute Oceanside Resort, which lives up to its name: 33 cabins, two 14-unit motels, campgrounds and an RV park, all within view or earshot of the pounding surf.

“Although the tribe’s reservation at La Push is spectacularly beautiful, it also is a dangerous place to live,” bill sponsor Rep. Norm Dicks, D-Port Angeles, said before the House vote. “The threat of tsunamis is a harsh reality that the Quileute Tribe faces every day.” The National Park land that is being transferred to Quileute is within Quileute’s historical territory. The National Park, which consisted of 922,651 acres in 2004, contains hundreds of historic structures and more than 600 identified archaeological sites that testify to at least 12,000 years of human habitation, according to the National Parks Conservation Association.

Some 280 acres of transferred land on the reservation’s southern boundary will enable Quileute to move the school, homes and vital public services out of the flood and tsunami zones. On the northern boundary, the 492 acres resolve the boundary dispute with the National Park, including land lost to the National Park because of changes in the Quillayute River’s course.

Improving tsunami safety here has been a long-time effort. In 2006, Cantwell sponsored legislation for 10 additional tsunami warning sirens for Washington state, the re-engineering and design of tsunami detection buoys, and research for advanced detection buoys.

Dicks introduced a land-transfer bill in December 2010, but no action was taken before the 2009-10 session of Congress ended. Dicks introduced a new bill during the 2010-11 session (Cantwell introduced a companion bill in the Senate), and Quileute officials made several visits to Washington, D.C., to discuss flood and tsunami dangers and ask for support for the land-transfer legislation.

Foster and his predecessor, Bonita Cleveland, also lobbied in 2011 for cell phone service as a vital component of flood and tsunami safety; some visitors have said cell phone service isn’t reliable until you’re four miles out of town.

At the time, Foster said the lack of reliable cell-phone reception compromised tsunami warnings and other emergency management communications – a sentiment shared, he said, by other public safety agencies. Verizon installed a new cell tower January 23, the day Foster was sworn in as chairman.

Foster said the Quileute council is thankful to Dicks, Cantwell and Olympic National Park Superintendent Karen Gustin for their efforts on behalf of the legislation. The Quileute council is also thankful to former council members, elders and tribal members “who have fought tirelessly to see this day come to fruition. It was a result of your decades of hard work, commitment and determination that made the passage of this legislation possible.”

VIDEOS: On April 14, 2011, Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Washington, receives the Department of the Interior's backing of her Quileute tsunami protection legislation (S.636) at an Indian Affairs Committee hearing. The House and Senate approved the House version of the bill; President Obama signed it into law Feb. 27.

On April 14, 2011, Quileute’s then-chairwoman Bonita Cleveland showed the Indian Affairs Committee this 10-minute video detailing Quileute’s precarious location.