Tribes tell Senate how environmental change, rules affect their lands

McClatchy NewspapersJuly 19, 2012 

— Climate change is sweeping indigenous villages into the sea in Alaska, flooding the taro fields of native Hawaiians and devastating the salmon population from which Washington state Indian tribes draw their livelihood, tribal leaders testified Thursday at a Senate hearing.

“The ocean is important to all of us,” said Billy Frank Jr., chairman of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission, a group of 20 Washington state tribes with treaty rights to salmon fishing. “It’s dying. And who the hell is in charge? Nobody that I see.”

Frank was among several witnesses at a hearing of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs who called on the federal government to fight climate change and help tribes cope with its effects. They suggested strategies such as renewable energy programs, land-swap plans for communities displaced by rising sea levels, and better coordination among the government agencies with which they interact.

These adjustments must be made immediately, said Mike Williams, chief of the Yupiit Nation in Alaska. At least three tribes in Alaska already have been told by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers that they must relocate, he said. Williams’ own birthplace is now underwater.

“There is much at stake,” Williams said. “I implore you to take meaningful action.”

The Environmental Protection Agency is working to address tribes’ concerns, said JoAnn Chase, director of the EPA’s American Indian Environmental Office. The agency is coordinating with state and tribal governments in Washington state to care for Puget Sound, and it will use its efforts there as a model for other collaborations, she said.

But Tex Hall, chairman of the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation in North Dakota, said the federal government is already too involved in environmental management.

Hall’s tribe is trying to rebuild its economy through oil and gas development on its reservation, he said. But public lands policies – which Hall said do not apply to tribal territory – are hindering its ability to do so, he said.

Committee Vice Chairman John Barrasso, R-Wyo., asked Chase questions about how the EPA evaluates the potential for negative economic impact on tribes when crafting its policies. She said she would need to check with her colleagues to give him a detailed answer.

“It certainly doesn’t sound like it’s a big priority if you can’t even answer yes or no with certainty,” Barrasso replied.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, asked Chase why the deadline for comment on an assessment of the Bristol Bay watershed had been set for July 23 when many Natives will be busy fishing on the bay. Murkowski said the EPA administrator responsible had been asked to push the deadline back and had declined.

Chase said she had not been involved in those deliberations, but that her agency aims to give tribes ample time to engage in the consultation process for its policies.

But Frank said the EPA and other agencies still aren’t paying enough attention to tribal input.

“You don’t listen to us when we talk,” Frank said. “We tell you what has to be done.”

Email: rcohen@mcclatchydc.com

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