WASHINGTON — The Biden administration will give three Native tribes $75 million to move away from coastal areas or rivers, one of the nation’s largest efforts to date to relocate communities that are facing an urgent threat from climate change.
The three communities — two in Alaska, and one in Washington State — will each get $25 million to move their key buildings onto higher ground and away from rising waters, with the expectation that homes will follow. The federal government will give eight more tribes $5 million each to plan for relocation.
“It gave me goose bumps when I found out we got that money,” said Joseph John Jr., a council member in Newtok, a village in southwest Alaska where the land is quickly eroding. It will receive $25 million to relocate inland. “It will mean a lot to us.”
The project, funded by the Interior Department, is an acknowledgment that a growing number of places around the United States can no longer be protected against changes brought by a warming planet. The spending is meant to create a blueprint for the federal government to help other communities, Native as well as nontribal, move away from vulnerable areas, officials said.
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Relocating whole communities, sometimes called managed retreat, is perhaps the most aggressive form of adaptation to climate change. Despite the high initial cost, relocation may save money in the long run, by reducing the amount of damage from future disasters, along with the cost of rebuilding after those disasters.
But relocation is also disruptive. In 2016, the Obama administration gave Louisiana $48 million to relocate the small coastal village of Isle de Jean Charles, which has lost most of its land to the Gulf of Mexico. Residents struggled to agree on where the new village should be built; it wasn’t until this year that people began moving into their new homes.
Another challenge is deciding which places to help first. This year, the Bureau of Indian Affairs held a contest, in which tribal nations applied for up to $3 million in relocation money. Of the 11 tribes that applied, only five received funding; the bureau would not say how it had decided which tribes to help relocate.
The $25 million awards announced on Wednesday, which will fund a significant portion of the cost of relocation, followed a process that was more opaque. According to officials, there was no application process. Instead, the Bureau of Indian Affairs considered tribes that had already done some degree of planning for relocation and applied five criteria, including the amount of risk they currently faced, whether they had selected new sites to move to and their readiness to move.
In addition to Newtok, the other tribes to receive $25 million were Napakiak, a village on the shore of the Kuskokwim River that is losing 25 to 50 feet of land each year to erosion, and the Quinault Indian Nation, on Washington State’s Olympic Peninsula, whose main town, Taholah, faces a growing risk of flooding.
Eight other tribes will get $5 million each to consider whether to relocate and to begin planning for relocation if they decide to do so. They include the Chitimacha Tribe, in Louisiana; the Yurok Tribe, in Northern California; and other Native villages in Alaska.
The federal government needs to learn how to help relocate communities that want to move, said Bryan Newland, assistant secretary for Indian affairs at the Interior Department. The new funding will be a chance for the Bureau of Indian Affairs to learn to coordinate its relocation efforts with other agencies that work on disaster recovery, including the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
“Because of the impact of climate change, it’s unfortunate that this work is necessary,” said Mr. Newland, who is a citizen of the Bay Mills Indian Community. “We have to make sure that tribes can continue to exist, and continue their way of life.”