Obama might sign Quileute higher-ground bill this week; tribe ready to make moving plans

By:  Paul Gottlieb
Source: The Peninsula Daily News

LAPUSH — The Quileute tribe was coming to grips Tuesday with the swift congressional passage of legislation that will expand the tribe's boundaries and allow members to move out of the LaPush tsunami zone — and away from an area where their homes and other tribal buildings annually flood.

The same bill that was approved 381-7 Feb. 6 in the House was unanimously approved Monday by the Senate.

Passage occurred with such speed and bipartisan support that Quileute Tribal Chairman Tony Foster said Tuesday he was “surprised and elated at the same time.”

It could be signed by President Barack Obama by Friday, said George Behan, a spokesman for U.S. Rep. Norm Dicks, who sponsored the legislation and whose 6th Congressional District includes ­Clallam and Jefferson counties.

The Quileute Tribal Council will meet Friday to take measure of the sudden turn of events and begin discussing what tribal facilities will be moved first, Foster said.

The tribe has about 700 members, hundreds of whom live and work in a “lower village” area flooded annually by the Quillayute River and threatened regularly by tsunamis that ride the Pacific Ocean, Foster said.

The tsunami inundation zone includes a senior center, tribal office buildings that house 40 to 60 workers and a school with 62 children.

“It happened so fast, it's now time for us to begin the work,” Foster said.

“We'll do a fast track on what we can do to see what buildings to take a look at first. Our elders and the safety of our children is our priority.”

The legislation gives the tribe 785 acres of Olympic National Park.

The land includes 275 acres where the tribal headquarters, school, day care center and elder center can move and more than 510 acres of ceremonial land known as Thunder Field, which resolves a decades-long reservation boundary dispute with Olympic National Park.

In return, the tribe guaranteed public access through tribal lands to Rialto, Second and other popular Washington coastal beaches.

The 275-acre parcel straddles LaPush Road just south of the existing reservation, while Thunder Field is just north of the reservation, bordering the park and the reservation to the south and the Quillayute River to the north.

The land conveyance includes the loss of 222 acres in the park that will be no longer designated as wilderness and no longer be protected as a component of the National Wilderness Preservation System under the federal Wilderness Act.

Wilderness boundaries in the park were adjusted to provide flood protection, according to the legislation.

Legislation originally supported by Olympic National Park had included a “no net loss” provision under which park land already managed as wilderness would be designated as wilderness, giving it heightened protection, park spokeswoman Barb Maynes said Tuesday.

A Senate version of the bill — co-sponsored by Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Mountlake Terrace, and Sen. Patty Murray, D-Bothell — which included designation of 4,100 acres in Lake Crescent as wilderness, was discarded in favor of the House bill, which did not include the provision.

“We are very happy, very supportive of the tribe having a place, an upland area to move into for providing for the health and safety needs of the tribe,” Maynes said adding it was good, too, that the boundary dispute was resolved.

“The park did participate in drafting the legislation, and in that original form, it included no net loss of wilderness acreage.

“That's something the park supported,” Maynes said, “and the final version did not include that.”

Flooding season on the reservation begins in about seven months.

Heavy rains in November, snow in December and heavy rains again in January “set the stage for potentially dangerous flooding in the village,” tribal spokeswoman Jackie Jacobs said.

Foster, 49, recalled evacuating the reservation as a child after tsunami warnings sounded on the reservation.

“We want to make sure we are prepared, that we provide our people the opportunity to move to higher ground in case it does take place.”

In praising the bill's passage, Dicks recalled the devastating 2011 Japanese tsunami.

“The speed with which the Senate acted [Monday] night to approve HR 1162 reflected the urgency that members in both houses clearly understood in the aftermath of last year's tsunami devastation in Japan,” he said in a statement.

“I appreciate Sen. Maria Cantwell's careful work in convincing her Democratic and Republican colleagues of the need to expedite the approval process so that the tribe's move to safer ground can take place as soon as possible.”

When the Japanese tsunami hit last March and when an earthquake earlier this year shook Vancouver Island, “it sent another urgent message and a wake-up call to hurry to get this legislation past Congress,” Cantwell said Monday on the Senate floor before the vote.

“With the passage of this bill,” she said, “the Quileute can finally begin to move out of the flood zone.”

The Senate version — it included the Lake Crescent wilderness provision — sparked strong objections from Republicans such as Sen. Linda Murkowski, chairwoman and ranking member of the Interior, Environment and Related Agencies Appropriations Subcommittee, Dicks' spokesman, George Behan, said.

“There were enough significant questions about that piece of the bill that the easy and immediate way to solve our main reason for introducing the bill in the first place, which was mainly to get the tribe out of potential harm, was to pass the version that was approved by the House, and the Senate recognized that,” Behan said.