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Quileute Officials Lobby D.C. for Safety Improvements

Quileute Nation officials say the transfer of traditional lands now held by the U.S. National Park Service, as well as reliable cell-phone reception, would improve safety from floods and tsunamis on this 1.5-square-mile reservation bordered on one side by the Pacific Ocean and on three sides by Olympic National Park.

This lush place where rainforest meets the ocean gets about 12 feet of rain a year. The Quileute River, on the reservation’s northern boundary, flows to driftwood beaches with views of James Island (known as A-Ka-Lat) and seastacks, sometimes shrouded by summer fog.

The area is stunningly beautiful, but also exposed to the strength of nature’s fury.

According to Quileute tradition, the Chimakum people—who speak a language similar to the Quileute language but live on the other side of the Olympic Peninsula—were a Quileute band swept away in their canoes by a great flood, carried through a passageway in the Olympic Mountains and deposited near Hood Canal.

The Quileute River changed course after a 1910 flood, shrinking the reservation by eight acres. Today half of the reservation lies in a floodplain; Quileute’s administrative offices, senior center, school and numerous homes are a mere 15 feet above sea level and at risk of tsunami and flooding from storms.

Quileute officials visited Washington, D.C., from February 14–18 to lobby for legislation that would transfer 772 acres of Olympic National Park land to Quileute, providing higher ground for homes and vital public services. They also lobbied for help getting reliable cell-phone reception on the reservation, and completion of an Army Corps of Engineers dredging project to improve the entrance to La Push Harbor.

The National Park land is within Quileute’s historical territory. Some 280 acres along the reservation’s southern boundary would enable Quileute to move its administration offices, elder center, school, and some homes. On the northern boundary, 492 acres would resolve a 50-year boundary dispute with the national park, including land lost to it due to changes in the Quileute River’s course.

A bill, H.R. 6527, was introduced on December 16 by Rep. Norm Dicks, D-Port Angeles, and referred to the House Committee on Natural Resources, but no action was taken before the 2009–10 session of Congress ended. A similar bill, transferring 37 acres of Olympic National Park land to the Hoh Tribe, was approved by Congress and signed by President Barack Obama in December. That transfer made the Hoh reservation contiguous with inland acreage acquired by the Hoh Tribe over a two-year span.

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Olympic National Park consisted of 922,651 acres in 2004, according to the National Parks Conservation Association. The National Park 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 association.

Quileute council members visited Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., to discuss flood and tsunami dangers and ask for her support for legislation that would enable Quileute to move its low-lying facilities to higher ground.

Quileute Chairwoman Bonita Cleveland said river flooding and high water have eroded traditional fishing and hunting lands—lands that cannot likely be recovered.

“The only hope the tribe has … is for historic Quileute lands held by the federal government to be transferred back to the tribe,” Cleveland said. “We desperately need passage of the land transfer legislation so that before the tsunami comes we can relocate … to higher ground.”

Cantwell has worked in the past to bolster tsunami safety on the Pacific Coast. In 2006 she sponsored legislation for 10 additional tsunami warning sirens for Washington state, the reengineering and design of tsunami detection buoys and research for advanced detection buoys.

Quileute council members also met with a Washington, D.C., communications attorney to consider options for obtaining reliable cellular service in La Push, the main town on the 1.5-square-mile reservation. La Push, the gateway to beaches, stunning scenery and marine-related activities, draws thousands of visitors each year, but cell-phone service is spotty. Some visitors say service isn’t reliable until you’re four miles out of town.

“It is imperative that we have cell phone service to reach emergency personnel in the event of a tsunami,” Cleveland said.

Quileute Vice Chairman Tony Foster said the lack of reliable cell-phone reception compromises tsunami warnings and other emergency management communications—a sentiment shared, he said, by other public safety agencies. He said Quileute’s attorney has been asked to seek assistance from the Federal Communications Commission on obtaining reliable cell-phone reception for the reservation.

Quileute officials also visited the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to discuss safety concerns for Quileute fishermen. A Corps contractor failed to complete a dredging project, causing a serious safety hazard to fishing boats attempting to enter and exit La Push Harbor, they said. Council members expressed their “extreme disappointment” to the Corps that the dredging project has not been finished and directed their attorney to take actions to “ensure that the dredging project is fully funded and a competent dredging contractor is selected by the Corps.”