Congress must help Quileutes escape tsunami threat

The Quileute Tribal School in La Push is probably unrivaled for its scenic setting, looking out on crashing surf, islands and the kind of picturesque sea stacks that make photographers swoon.

But when the Cascadia subduction zone 80 miles offshore generates a massive earthquake – as it does every couple of hundred years, most recently in 1700 – it will almost surely create the kind of devastating tsunami that recently struck Japan after a similar subduction zone event.

And that schoolhouse – along with a senior center and homes on the Quileutes’ square-mile reservation – would be at ground zero. The ocean that makes La Push such a beautiful setting could be the death of it.

If the tsunami warning sirens are operational, and if the one road out of town is passable after a massive earthquake, the Quileutes who are not trapped in collapsed structures might be able to escape the coming deluge. But if the road is rendered impassable by the quake, many of the 400 tribal members who live in La Push could perish.

That fate is avoidable. For almost 30 years, the tribe has been negotiating with the National Park Service for a land transfer of almost 800 acres from the million-acre Olympic National Forest, a transfer that would allow the Quileutes to move to higher ground to avoid not only tsunami danger but also perennial flooding of the Quillayute River bordering the reservation.

The fear generated by the Japanese tragedy is giving their efforts new urgency. U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell and Rep. Norm Dicks are backing legislation to make the transfer happen, and the park service is on board.

Congressional approval is needed because 222 of the acres in question are currently designated wilderness. While such changes in designation are not common, there is precedent – including one in 1984 that allowed expansion of the White Pass ski area.

Even environmental groups that often fight changes in wilderness designation, such as the Sierra Club, support this one. They recognize the peril facing the Quileutes and how easily the situation can be addressed with the transfer.

The tribe is not a wealthy one; members eke out a living from the land, the sea and tourism. Even if Congress approves the land transfer, the tribe also will need financial help to move en masse to higher ground. Given the Quileutes’ close historic relationship with the Olympic Peninsula, that’s help the federal government should give to expedite the move.

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