Biden administration announces $15 million in grants to help Alaskan tribes adapt to climate change ” Alaska

Rotary Beach south of Saxman is also called Bugge’s Beach. (Photo of KRBD file)

Tribes in Alaska are trying to find ways to prevent climate change from eroding their way of life — like access to traditional foods, clean waterways, and infrastructure in small villages.

The Bureau of Indian Affairs recently announced more than $45 million in federal grants to tribes across the country to address issues driven by climate change.

More than a third of that ends up in Alaska, which has the largest number of state-recognized tribes in the country.

Alaska is warming faster than any other part of the US. Climate change has left communities facing problems ranging from eroded coastlines and riverbanks to bacteria-infested waterways.

The Biden administration’s climate change grants are funded in part by last year’s landmark bipartisan infrastructure bill. They’re supposed to give the tribes an injection of cash to invest in projects that help stave off the worst of the effects.

There is great pressure in the South East to ensure vital waterways remain clean and food for subsistence remains available.

The Ketchikan Indian Community received $246,221 to continue working toward the goals set out in their Climate Action Plan. Tribal officials say it is the largest federal climate grant to date from the state-recognized tribe.

Tony Gallegos, the tribe’s director of cultural resources, said climate change is threatening the way of life of the indigenous people.

“Well, it poses a kind of urgent risk to our traditional resources, foodstuffs that our citizens depend on,” he said.

And part of preserving the way of life is understanding the role of traditional foods. So, among other things, the tribe plans to interview local elders to learn what traditional food sources are most important to them. Gallegos said efforts are already underway.

With over 320 responses to our first survey last year, we’ve already made some significant progress in collecting and documenting tribal people’s reliance on traditional foods and priorities,” said Gallegos.

A portion of the grant money will also be used to collect bacterial samples from local water bodies. The tribe has been monitoring bacteria levels on local beaches since 2017, and evidence seems to point to spikes after major rainstorms.

“Sometimes they call (it) the ‘first flush’ after a rain event, especially if it hasn’t rained in a while, can often carry pollutants into, in this case, the (Tongass) Narrows where we… bacteria have problems,” said Gallegos. “And we want to start collecting some water quality (samples) right during and right after these rain events.”

Gallegos said they hope to test at least 10 samples over the next two years.

An additional $15,000 was awarded to the tribe to help defray travel expenses for employees attending conferences and learning about other ways to adapt to a changing climate.

Further north, the Yakutat Tlingit tribe plans to use a $113,830 grant to deepen local knowledge of tribal lands using LiDAR mapping technology. This will allow the tribe to conduct detailed aerial surveys of their land.

Andrew Gildersleeve is the chief executive officer of the tribe.

LiDAR is a very exciting opportunity for us to accurately map tribal lands as they are,” said Gildersleeve. “And this sets a record for us and a foundation to use in the future and we hope that future generations will be able to establish and spot trends.”

With LiDAR, Gildersleeve says the tribe can learn more about sea level rise, salmon habitat and intertidal zones.

Tribe grants advisor Amanda Bremner said the project will be completed in three phases. And it might even help increase ancestral knowledge.

We have a map of indigenous and traditional place names that has been just a map on the wall for years, drawing boundaries and areas from a time decades ago, which may not necessarily be accurate in this ever-changing climate,” Bremner said. “That’s why we’re looking forward to these high-resolution images.”

In the Upper Lynn Canal community in Klukwan, a grant of more than $589,000 is earmarked to fund riverbank stabilization as the community faces accelerated glacial runoff and melting permafrost. The tribe hopes that the Jilkaat Kwaan Heritage Center’s bank stabilization project will preserve the salmon runs.

The Sitka Tribe of Alaska received more than $298,000 for its tribe-run Southeast Alaska Tribal Ocean Research center. That will support further research into harmful algal blooms and crippling shellfish toxins that thrive in warming waters.

And the largest tribe in the Southeast, the Central Council of Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska, is working toward food sovereignty with a region-wide community garden program. This project is funded with a US$2 million grant. Tlingit & Haida did not respond to repeated requests for comment from KRBD.

In Klawock — the only community on Prince of Wales Island to receive a grant — the Klawock Cooperative Association will use $248,206 to kick-start its own climate action plan. It will be based on a Tlingit & Haida model. The Klawock Cooperative Association did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

Elsewhere in the state, a handful of villages received funding to seek higher ground in the face of increasingly violent storms and erosion.

This includes Unalakleet. With around 800 people, it is the largest community to receive a grant for what is known as a “managed retreat” from the Norton Sound shoreline. A 2019 study by the Denali Commission found that Unalakleet was the eighth most vulnerable community in Alaska when it comes to damage from erosion and flooding.

The local tribe was paid $290,440 to move the village to a nearby hilltop.

Kari Duame is the housing director for The Native Village of Unalakleet.

She explained that an old dam encircling the muddy promontory the village sits on saved it from the worst damage from September’s former Typhoon Merbok. But she said it was clear the village would need to move farther from shore to survive the new climate reality.

“The ground itself can be unstable due to the style and era of construction — a lot of the houses are from the ’70s, ’80s, even earlier, like the ’40s and ’50s,” she said. “And even more worryingly, the levee probably won’t be enough in the long run.”

She said moving away from the coast would also give the village room to expand.

Also, there’s very little land to build on – (it’s pretty crowded,” Duame noted.

Duame said the plan is in its early stages. She said the tribe’s goal for this grant is to finalize a full plan for another grant application next year.

Unalakleet is not alone. Kivalina, in the Northwest Arctic Borough, was paid almost $250,000 to plan his self-administered withdrawal. Akiak in the Bethel Census Area received $150,000 to begin moving away from the Kuskokwim River.

And in Nunapitchuk, a nearby river has eroded so badly that water has risen to the door of the village’s only public safety building. This is where the village security guards live and work, and it is also where emergency equipment is kept. The village’s $2.2 million grant will help fund a new building as the current building is a total loss.

In Chefornak, flooding is forcing some parts of the city to relocate. The $2.9 million grant will build 19 homes and a new preschool off the water.

Other tribes are just keeping tabs on things — as in Kipnuk and Tuntutuliak, where tribes have received grants to conduct permafrost risk assessments.

The full list of BIA Climate Action Plan resilience grants can be found on the agency’s website.

Raegan Miller is a member of the Report for America Corps for KRBD. Your donation of our RFA grant helps her write stories like this. Please consider making a tax-deductible donation at KRBD.org/donate.

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