LA PUSH, WA – With its craggy rocks rising from the sea, regular whale sightings and white sand beaches, the Washington state community of La Push, located just west of Olympic National Park, is at first glance, idyllic.
But the beauty of the place is matched by the danger. Located at sea level, La Push lies directly in a flood and tsunami zone. It is home to the Quileute Indian Nation, a tiny tribe that gained popularity for its portrayal in the hit book and movie series “Twilight.” The tribe’s square-mile reservation leaves little land to buffer the storms and anticipated high waters.
For centuries, the Quileute tribe has relied on the area’s ocean and rivers. Native fishermen and hunters used to escape dangerous weather by moving around their territory that stretched across the Olympic Peninsula. But that’s no longer an option. In 1855, the tribe signed a treaty ceding thousands of square miles of land in exchange for fishing and hunting rights. Now, resigned to their small coastal plot, they are facing increasing risks.
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University of Washington researchers say that rising temperatures are causing reduced snowpack and diminishing glaciers, while contributing to more winter rainfall. Heavy rains have already destroyed vital hunting grounds and homes on the Quileute’s reservation in recent years.
“I see water running down the street in the wintertime,” said Lonnie Foster, treasurer of the tribal council, adding that floods come on faster now than when he was a child. “Back then it would take two to three days before [the tides] would come up to the flood level. But now, when it rains pretty hard, it comes up overnight.”
In the nearby Olympic Mountains, glaciers have lost about one third of their mass in the past 30 years, and the resulting ice melt is causing sea levels to rise. Tribal elders like Chris Morganroth fear tsunami threats have worsened.
“Because of the water rising and the ocean, a wave that’s created by that tsunami is probably going to reach farther into the rivers,” Morganroth said. “If it happened a hundred years ago, then it was probably not as devastating as it might be today.”
But the Quileute are not waiting for that devastating event to happen. They’re preparing now.
To ensure the survival of their tribe, the Quileute have been entrenched in a 50-year effort to get back part of the land that they ceded – most of it on high ground that could keep them safe and provide room for tribal members who now live off the reservation to return home. Complicating the struggle is the fact that the land was designated as part of Olympic National Park. Shifting that boundary would require action by the federal government.
Quileute tribal chairman Tony Foster says there’s irony in fighting so long and hard for land that was theirs to begin with. “If I could rewrite history, we would have had more land-base for our community so we wouldn’t have the struggle that we face today,” he said.
Several members of Washington’s congressional delegation have taken up the cause including Rep. Norm Dicks, who sponsored the bill.
But there’s also been another, unexpected source of momentum: the Quileute’s “Twilight” stardom. Twilight’s Jacob, a shape-shifting werewolf, belongs to the Quileute tribe. In the story, his clan has an ancient treaty with a family of vampires.
While Quileute members have somewhat mixed reactions to their tribe’s role in the hit series, they’re often quick to acknowledge that stardom has helped galvanize their cause.
“It’s brought us a lot of national attention,” says Ann Penn-Charles, a tribal member, “You got all these Facebook pages and then, of course you got the media coming out, doing coverage of us, and they got to see that little glimpse of our reservation. It helped us a lot to push Congress.”
That push finally paid off. In February of this year, Congress passed bill HR 1162 that transfers 785 acres of Olympic National Park back to the tribe.
“The National Park Service doesn’t transfer park lands casually and it doesn’t happen often,” says Karen Gustin, former superintendent of Olympic National Park who worked to resolve the boundary dispute between the tribe and the park. “The reason this is going through is because it’s a serious life, health, and safety issue for the tribe.”
She adds that the park service will also gain something from yielding the land: public access to several of the landmark beaches located on the tribe’s reservation and a large portion of land that the tribe will preserve as wilderness
The process is still in its early stages. Planning meetings within the tribe and also with key federal agencies began last month and it will likely take years before they are able to fully relocate. And there’s another challenge to overcome: the cost. Full relocation from planning to resettlement is estimated to cost about $25 million. How to pay those costs is still uncertain.
Despite the challenges, many Quileute feel a great sense of victory, hope and relief that the relocation is moving forward.
“Moving to higher ground is essential for us,” says Foster. “If this place gets wiped out, the Quileutes could be lost forever.”
This was produced in collaboration with the PBS NewsHour.
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