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Joaqlin Estus
Indian Country Today

Tribes across the country are facing climate changes such as drought, higher temperatures, and sea level rise.

Federal agencies offer aid for dealing with the effects, but tribes have criticized how those services are delivered, saying regulations and policy put much of the help out of reach for many tribes. 

Now, a U.S. Government Accountability Office report has pinpointed problems at key federal agencies and recommended changes in how they are handling the climate crisis for Alaska Native villages.

At a Senate Indian Affairs Committee roundtable discussion on Native communities and the climate crisis held in March 2021, tribal representatives described dire conditions across Indian Country.

In California, tribes see devastating wildfires. In Nevada, Walker River Paiute farmers and ranchers have lost up to 40 percent of their crops and herds due to water shortages. And flooding on the Mississippi River raises concerns about nuclear contamination near the Mdewakanton Sioux lands on Prairie Island in Minnesota.

At the 2021 hearing, Water Resources Coordinator Elveda Martinez, of the Walker River Paiute Tribe, described erosion of the Walker River due to flooding from the rapidly melting Sierra snowpack. Between having to compete for funds from multiple agencies, and getting only piecemeal funding, "It's just so hard to get anything done," she said.

COASTAL EROSION Kivalina 050325-A-A1410-1014 - A resident from Kivalina, Alaska, stands in front of their home that is eroding into the water on March 25, 2005. The community faces erosion challenges from wave action and sea storms for several decades. (Photo courtesy of U.S. Army Corps of Engineers)

Other tribal representatives said some grants are inaccessible because they require matching funds that tribes don’t have. They said they need help with technical reports, and funding for long-term federal and state agency coordination has been inconsistent.

Nicole Borromeo, Upper Kuskokwim Athabascan, raised concerns earlier this month at a Senate Indian Affairs Committee hearing on implementation of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act for Native communities. The statewide Alaska Federation of Natives vice president said agencies should allow regional nonprofits to apply for federal grants on behalf of villages that lack either administrative capacity or internet access or both.

Related:
— Climate change puts Indigenous homelands in peril
— Washington tribes feel the heat of climate change
— Alaska: On the edge and nowhere to go
— Tribal guide to climate change
— Climate Change: Navajo Nation faces drought, fires, flooding

The GAO report focused on the more than 70 villages in Alaska that a state assessment shows are threatened by erosion, flooding, and thawing permafrost. The threats loom large in communities where river or ocean waters have already destroyed homes and are mere feet away from vital infrastructure such as power plants, water treatment plants, runways and barge landings, schools and homes.

Federal agencies have stepped up in recent years, according to the GAO report. They provided about $391 million in fiscal years 2016 through 2020 for repairs and protective measures for the villages. 

But, the report states, “more than one-third of highly threatened Native villages did not receive such federal assistance during these 5 years…”

At the 2021 hearing, CEO Nikoosh Carlo, Koyukon Athabascan, of CNC North Consulting in Seattle, said, “We really need innovative climate financing to build those proactive, preemptive and long-term responses in local communities really quickly. 

"An idea that I've been working on is creating what I call a climate response fund that can draw from diverse funding sources and use collaborative governance to structure and to finance innovative, equitable, and community-led climate mitigation and adaptation projects," she said.

It’s important to give people at the local level the funds and authority to address needs, Carlo said. 

"The key is drawing from different funding sources like public funding, but also private equity and nonprofits, and even other revenue streams like carbon markets, and bringing all those pieces together and having a fund that is operated locally by the communities to put those funds where they know it needs to go and where it can make the most impact,” she said.

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The GAO report also recommended creation of an interagency coordinating entity. 

Changes to agency regulations or policy could help Native villages better obtain federal assistance, the report said.

“Congress should require the relevant agencies to participate and engage in sustained coordination to strategically target federal investments to Alaska Native villages facing significant environmental threats," the report said.

The agencies that were the subject of the report include the Department of Defense, Federal Emergency Management Agency, Housing and Urban Development, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Natural Resources Conservation Service, and the Bureau of Indian Affairs. The GAO recommended most review their programs to identify and remove obstacles blocking assistance to Alaska Native villages. 

Some of the report’s recommendations were already on a to-do list at the Interior Department.

The report comes just weeks after an Alaska visit by Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs Bryan Newland, a citizen of the Bay Mills Indian Community.

U.S. Department of the Interior Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs Bryan Newland, center, listens to an employee of the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission at the Cooks Landing in-lieu site along the Columbia River on May 3, 2022. (Photo by Chris Aadland/Underscore.news and Indian Country Today)

He said his trip to Kivalina, an Inupiaq community threatened by severe flooding, was a revelation. He walked along a sea wall protecting the village from storms.

“You're looking out, and there's the Bering Sea right there… then 100 or 200 yards in the other direction is a lagoon. So this is a community that is threatened on all sides by rising water. And the only thing keeping people safe in their homes is this seawall that they developed in partnership with the Army Corps of Engineers. That was eye-opening," Newland said.

“And the other part that was really eye-opening for me is, if there is an immediate flood and a need to evacuate in the Lower 48, if you have an evacuation route, you can get in your car or get in a bus or walk to a neighboring community or a higher ground," he said.

"Up here, the next community may be many, many, many miles away and not connected by road…there isn't a whole lot of places to evacuate to if the threat comes to pass. So it really drove home the urgency for communities like Kivalina and others who are really confronting the effects of climate change on a daily basis,” Newland said.

CLIMATE CHANGE - Kivalina, The village of Kivalina in Northwest Alaska is located on a barrier island on the Bering Sea. The sea used to reliably  freeze to 12 feet thick. People used it as a platform for hunting humpback whales and walrus. The mammals stuck to open leads where they could easily breathe. Now, the ice is thinner and unsafe. The leads are so numerous hunters don't know where their prey will surface. Permafrost is melting, making the ground susceptible to erosion from storms.Oct. 9, 2014 (Photo by Joaqlin Estus)

He said the cost of moving a community is extraordinarily high. Some estimates run into the billions of dollars for all the villages that need to retreat, relocate, or protect in place. 

President Joe Biden has secured $216 million as an "important down payment on tribal resilience and relocation,” Newland said. He said a key part of the planning will be how to allocate those funds.

“That's the challenge. We are working on that process right now and trying to prioritize where to put the money. Some of the things that we'll have to consider are things like readiness. How ready is a community to move in terms of their planning, their identifying a new site for their community? Do they have existing funding? And then we have to, of course, also look at the threat level. We wouldn't want to over weight somebody's preparedness if they're not facing an immediate threat,” he said.

Newland said a sustained, coordinated effort across the federal government, working with communities and partners on the ground, is key.

Added to that is the critical need to act. His trip affirmed “a lot of the things we've been hearing for a long time, which is that climate change is affecting subsistence and animal migration, the ability to harvest salmon and whale and birds – you name it – and just the changing seasons," Newland said.

"And it really emphasized how interconnected all of this is. Infrastructure with climate change with the need to have safe drinking water and food to eat,” he said. “It's all connected and it's not going to be an easy web to untangle. It's very complex, but it's urgent and we can't let that complexity deter us from action."

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