Today, the Senate Indian Affairs Committee approved legislation introduced by U.S. Senator Maria Cantwell (D-WA) that would enable the Quileute Tribe to move to higher ground, away from the danger of a Pacific tsunami and persistent Quillayute River flooding. The bill now moves to the full Senate for consideration. Congressman Norm Dicks has introduced companion legislation in the House.
"We cannot wait for tragedy to strike to take action to prepare our coastal communities for tsunamis," said Senator Cantwell. "Today's committee vote is a significant step forward in our effort to proactively move the Quileute community to higher ground and out of harm's way. I will continue fighting with Congressman Dicks on this sensible plan to increase economic opportunity and safeguard Quileute families and their property from devastating floods and tsunamis."
Rep. Dicks said: "I am encouraged that the legislation is moving forward in the Senate, with Senator Cantwell's strong support, and I will be working with the House Natural Resources Committee to seek parallel action on our side of Capitol Hill. The threat of tsunamis is a harsh reality that the Quileutes have faced every day and we need to pass this legislation as soon as possible so the Tribe can move to safer ground outside the tsunami zone."
Cantwell's legislation (S.636), introduced in the Senate on March 17th, would authorize the transfer of appropriate tracts of higher elevation land from Olympic National Park, which borders the Quileute Tribal Reservation, enabling the tribe to relocate out of a flood zone. These tracts would be added to private lands the Tribe has purchased to form a contiguous area upon which the tribe's school, a daycare center, the elder center, tribal government offices, and several tribal members' homes could be constructed.
In a prepared statement, the Honorable Bonita Cleveland, Chairperson of the Quileute Nation, said: "The Quileute tribe extends our deepest gratitude to Senator Cantwell and the committee for moving this bill forward and recognizing the urgency in moving our lower village to higher ground. Though the March 11 Japan tsunami no longer dominates the headlines, they have in fact continued to experience a number of earthquakes. Central Asia, New Zealand, Alaska and The Pacific island nation of Papua New Guinea, which shares the "Ring of Fire' with La Push, where about 90 percent of the world's quakes occur, have all experienced earthquakes in the last 30 days. A minor earthquake on the Olympic Peninsula four days ago heightened the fears and concerns in our village, so the timing of this hearing is a welcome relief to our people. This is a very important day for all Quileute people and we give appreciation to the ancestors and elders for giving us guidance, the strength to persevere and the courage to believe that this day would come to pass."
Representing years of work by stakeholders, the legislation would also settle, by mutual agreement, a longstanding dispute between the Olympic National Park and the tribe over the northern boundary of the reservation. In addition, the bill will guarantee public access to beaches on the Washington coast and designate as wilderness thousands of acres of land currently within the Olympic National Park boundary.
"We are pleased to have had the opportunity to work with Senator Cantwell and Congressman Dicks' staff in helping find a resolution to the health and safety issues affecting the Quileute people," Olympic National Park Superintendent Karen Gustin said in a prepared statement.
At an Indian Affairs hearing on April 14, the Department of the Interior added its backing to Cantwell's Quileute tsunami protection legislation. Also at the April 14 hearing, Quileute Nation Chairperson Cleveland explained how there is only one road that connects the lower village to higher ground, and it is often buried under several feet of water when flooded, which Cleveland said occurs every winter. Cleveland also showed a ten-minute video that details the tribe's precarious location as well as touches on the tribe's recent notoriety gained through its depiction in the movie series Twilight.