U. S. to Pay Millions to Move Tribes Threatened by Climate Change

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WASHINGTON — The Biden administration will give three indigenous tribes $75 million to move away from coastal areas or rivers, one of the country’s largest efforts to date to relocate communities facing an urgent threat from climate change.

The three communities — two in Alaska and one in Washington state — will each receive $25 million to move their key buildings to higher ground away from rising waters, with the expectation that homes will follow. The federal government will give eight other tribes $5 million each to plan their move.

“I got goosebumps when I found out we had that money,” said Joseph John Jr., a councilman in Newtok, a southwestern Alaskan town where the land is rapidly eroding. It gets $25 million to move inland. “It will mean a lot to us.”

The project, funded by the Department of the Interior, is an acknowledgment that a growing number of places in the United States can no longer be protected from changes brought about by a warming planet. The spending is intended to create a blueprint for the federal government to help move other communities, both Indigenous and non-tribal, away from vulnerable areas, officials said.

Relocating entire communities, also known as managed retreat, is perhaps the most aggressive form of climate change adaptation. Despite the high initial cost, relocating can save money in the long run by reducing the amount of damage from future disasters, along with the cost of rebuilding after those disasters.

But moving is also disturbing. In 2016, the Obama administration gave Louisiana $48 million to relocate the small coastal town of Isle de Jean Charles, which has lost most of its land on the Gulf of Mexico. Residents struggling to agree on where the new village is to be built; it was only this year that people started moving into their new homes.

Another challenge is deciding which places to help first. This year, the Bureau of Indian Affairs held a contest where tribal nations could apply for up to $3 million in relocation grants. Of the 11 tribes that applied, only five received funding; the agency would not say how it decided which tribes to help move.

The $25 million awards announced Wednesday, which will fund a significant portion of the cost of the move, followed a process that was more opaque. According to officials, there was no application process. Instead, the Bureau of Indian Affairs took into account tribes who had already made some degree of relocation planning and applied five criteria, including the amount of risk they were currently at, whether they had selected new locations to move to, and their Willingness to Relocate.

Besides Newtok, the other tribes receiving $25 million were Napakiak, a village on the bank of the Kuskokwim River that loses 7.5 to 15 meters of land each year to erosion, and the Quinault Indian Nation, on the state’s Olympic Peninsula Washington, whose main city, Taholah, faces a growing risk of flooding.

Eight other tribes will each receive $5 million to consider moving and to begin planning for a move if they decide to do so. They include the Chitimacha tribe of Louisiana; the Yurok Tribe, in Northern California; and other Native Alaskan villages.

The federal government needs to learn how to help communities move that want to move, said Bryan Newland, deputy secretary for Indian affairs at the Department of the Interior. The new funding is an opportunity for the Bureau of Indian Affairs to learn how to coordinate its relocation efforts with other agencies working on disaster recovery, including the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

“Due to the impacts of climate change, it is unfortunate that this work is necessary,” said Mr Newland, a citizen of the Bay Mills Indian Community. “We need to ensure that tribes can survive and continue their way of life.”