LA PUSH, Wash. — The Quileute Tribal School is perched just a stone's throw from a rugged ocean beach framed by sea stacks and islands and splashed by powerful waves at this remote northwest corner of the U.S.
At recess, the children burn off energy in a playground that's occasionally assaulted by logs tossed ashore during winter storms.
After a killer tsunami hit Japan last month following a 9.0 earthquake, people up and down the Pacific coast worry that the next tsunami might forever change their lives.
Nowhere is that fear more intense than in La Push, along the coast of Washington state's Olympic Peninsula, where members of the Quileute tribe want to move to higher ground to avoid a possible hit. Toward that end, the Quileute want Congress to give them nearly 800 acres of federal parkland so they can make the move as soon as possible.
"Our people live in danger daily knowing that we could hit by a tsunami," said Bonita Cleveland, the tribe's chairwoman. "It could be wiped out in a heartbeat. It's important to move our people to higher ground for the protection and safety of our people."
The region where the oceanic and continental plates collide is 80 miles offshore from La Push, geologists have confirmed. It's the potential site of a magnitude 9.0 earthquake and tsunami similar to what occurred in Japan.
Earthquakes along the Cascadia subduction zone, which stretches roughly 600 miles off the coast of northern California to southern British Columbia, happen on intervals of several hundred years. The last one to strike the Washington coast was in 1700.
Computer models of the Cascadia subduction zone suggest the Quileute tribal members would have about 20 to 30 minutes after such an earthquake to flee to higher ground in advance of major flooding and a tsunami, state geologist Tim Walsh said.
But the energy generated by the earthquake could first tear the village apart and wipe out the only road leading out of La Push.
Quileute Tribal School officials have been practicing tsunami evacuations, in which they load the 80 students on school buses and drive out of the village to higher ground. It takes about six to eight minutes, barring complications, said school principal Al Zantua.
Evacuating the rest of the village, though, could be a problem. The siren installed to warn villagers of an approaching tsunami is hard to hear in some areas. Acoustical studies are scheduled to determine if the siren should be moved.
The National Park Service is backing the tribe's plan, which would transfer 785 acres of land in Olympic National Park — including 222 acres of officially designated wilderness — to the Quileutes.
Olympic is the largest national park in Washington state, with nearly 1 million acres. It includes forest land, beaches and coastline, temperate rain forest, glacier-covered mountains and unique ecosystems.
The tribe is proposing to use part of the land to relocate homes, the school and several other reservation facilities. It has an enrolled membership of more than 1,000, with roughly 400 of them living at the site.
The deal comes after many years of negotiations between the tribe and the Park Service.
Dave Reynolds, a spokesman for Olympic National Park, couldn't provide an estimate of the value of the property.
Cleveland said it would be impossible to quantify.
"To native people, I don't know how you put a cost on land," she said.
It's important to understand the history of the tribe, whose members used to move freely on the northwest corner of the Olympic Peninsula, spending winters along the rivers and in the old-growth forests in relative safety and comfort, far from the coastal storms and river flooding that plague the reservation, said tribal council member DeAnna Hobson.
"For more than 100 years, we've been pressed up against the sea ... even though the treaty says we should have land sufficient for our needs — not only for safety, but for the future of the tribe," Hobson said.
After making a lobbying trip to the nation's capital, tribal leaders won the backing of Rep. Norm Dicks and Sen. Maria Cantwell, both Washington state Democrats, who have introduced bills that would transfer the property to the Quileute tribe.
"This is something we should do to protect the tribe and the children," said Dicks, the top-ranked Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee. "You've got to do it. I mean, this is very legitimate."
Cantwell said the legislation would settle a longstanding dispute over the reservation's northern boundary and guarantee public access to beaches. And she said it would designate as wilderness more than 4,000 acres of land that's currently within the park's boundaries.
While the tribe is using the recent Japanese tsunami as a way to try to sell the plan, Cleveland said that negotiations on a deal have actually been in the works for nearly three decades. She said she's optimistic that Congress will approve the plan.
"If we were hit by a tsunami, there could be no La Push," she said. "There could be no more Quileute people. I would hope that would be a priority in somebody's mind. We need to live just as well as anybody else."
Under the agreement, the National Park Service would transfer the property to the Bureau of Indian Affairs, which would hold the land in trust for the tribe, according to Donald Laverdure, principal deputy assistant secretary for Indian affairs with the U.S. Department of Interior. He told the Senate Indian Affairs Committee on Thursday that the department is backing the plan and that "all of the concerns have been met."
The tribe is perhaps most well-known for its role in Stephenie Meyer's "Twilight" novels. According to their creation story, the Quileutes were changed from wolves by a wandering transformer. The story inspired Meyer's writings and draws many "Twilight" fans to visit the tribe's reservation.
"This would protect all the tourists, also," Cleveland said.
The plan to re-designate 222 acres of wilderness would require a reversal by Congress, which declared 95 percent of the park a wilderness area in 1988.
The plan is unusual because the closest thing to an ironclad promise on Capitol Hill is a wilderness designation, at least in theory.
Since passing the Wilderness Act in 1964, Congress has changed borders of wilderness areas at least 19 times. Eight of the changes involved 67 acres or less, according to the Congressional Research Service. At least 10 of the deletions have involved parcels larger than 300 acres, including one in Washington state that allowed expansion of an existing ski area into a parcel of land that had been designated as wilderness.
It's far more common for Congress to create new wilderness areas. From 1968 to 2010, Congress passed 117 laws designating additional wilderness.
"Congress giveth, and Congress can taketh away," said Bill Arthur, the deputy national field director with the Sierra Club, adding that changes to wilderness tracts have been "quite infrequent and very modest in scale."
Wilderness and environmental groups, including the Sierra Club, are backing the proposal.
"The Quileutes are in an untenable position, and it needs to be fixed," Arthur said.
(Hotakainen reported from Washington. Dodge, of The Olympian in Olympia, Wash., reported from La Push.)
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