River turns against a salmon tribe

Clear-cutting and riverbank armoring have helped erode a reservation

  • Hoh Tribal Chairwoman Mary Leitka and tribal Natural Resources Administrator Rodney Thysell stand near where the Hoh River meets the Pacific Ocean in northwest Washington. Changes in the river's course are slowly eroding away the tribe's small reservation

    Dan Wilcock
  • Hoh Indian Reservation

    Diane Sylvain

HOH RESERVATION, Washington— Standing on the bank of the Hoh River where it meets the Pacific Ocean, Mary Leitka closes her eyes and pictures life on the reservation 50 years ago, when she was a girl. She remembers the sandy spit where she and her parents fished for chinook salmon and steelhead as they made their way up the river during fall and winter spawning runs. She remembers the day when the tribe floated a Model A Ford down the river from the nearest road, its tires lodged in two canoes, so everyone could listen to the 1955 World Series on its radio.

"Everything revolved around that river," says Leitka, the Hoh Tribe’s chairwoman. "That was our way of living." But beginning in the early 1990s, the river started to wind sharply southward through the tiny 443-acre reservation, which is completely surrounded by Olympic National Park and the ocean. Since then, a series of floods — the latest and largest came in October 2003 — has progressively carved away the tribe’s land.

During floods, water courses over the reservation’s main road and inundates buildings, including the tribal center. The riverbank now stands only 25 feet from the tribe’s main water well, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is monitoring the tribe’s water supply for contamination from the river, which could poison the tribe with bacteria. Flooding also overwhelms the tribe’s sewer system, causing raw sewage to wash over the main road.

Even during the driest part of summer, the reservation looks like it’s under siege. Sandbags surround several buildings, and a thick earthen berm rings the tribal center, where water inside rose to Leitka’s thigh in the flood last October.

"If nothing is done, it’s only a matter of time before the tribe is washed out to sea," says Craig Paulsen, a water-quality specialist in the EPA’s Seattle office.

Between a rock and a wet place

The Hoh Tribe has lived for centuries along the river, in a region that often receives North America’s highest annual rainfall. With its glacial source high in the Olympic Mountains, the river crashes downward nearly 8,000 feet in only 56 miles. This naturally results in a wild, fast river that meanders dramatically. But a sequence of events over the last century has crippled the tribe’s ability to adapt to the river’s violent changes.

Traditionally, the Hoh moved their settlements up and down the river as it meandered, but that movement stopped in 1893, when President Garfield confined the tribe to a less than one-square-mile plot of land at the mouth of the river. The War Department solidified those borders during World War II when it seized much of the Olympic Peninsula’s Pacific Coast to guard against a Japanese invasion. In 1953, President Harry Truman turned the commandeered land into a part of Olympic National Park.

And while borders have squeezed the tribe from without, the tribe’s own growth has squeezed it from within. Today, there are 111 tribal residents, over half of them under 20 years old. The tribe’s birthrate is more than double the state average. But because space for housing is limited by steep hillsides and wetlands, as many as four families cram into a single house.

To make matters worse, the river may have become more violent in recent decades due to logging and riverbank armoring. Large-scale clear-cutting on the land east of the reservation reached its peak in the 1970s. With fewer trees to absorb rainfall and fewer logjams upriver, the river’s flow has accelerated, increasing erosion and flooding. In 1995, Jefferson County workers halted erosion of the river’s north bank across from the reservation, by installing a wall of large rocks that the tribe says steered the river directly toward the tribal settlement.

Pat Rogers, Jefferson County Commissioner for the district that includes the reservation, says the rock bank "didn’t alter what nature would have done." But he recognizes the tribe’s predicament: "The tribe needs to get off the floodplain and into a safer area."

Moving forward means moving

Finding a new home is the unavoidable solution, says James Jaime, the tribe’s executive director. Where that land will come from, however, is unclear. Any proposal to turn over parts of the national park would surely raise the ire of environmentalists. And, Jaime says, "We don’t have the budget" to buy private property.

"To me, the state land around us is the most accessible," Jaime says. In order to acquire state land, the tribe would most likely need to find federal funding and then forge an agreement with both the state and federal agencies, says Kyle Taylor Lucas, executive director of the Governor’s Office of Indian Affairs. Lucas is part of an interagency working group formed by the tribe, which includes representatives from Jefferson County, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the Indian Health Service, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the EPA, the Army Corps of Engineers and the National Park Service. Notably lacking, however, are members of the congressional delegation or agency leaders from Washington, D.C., who might have the clout to command appropriations from the federal treasury.

Working-group meetings began in the wake of last October’s flood, spurring a $250,000 study funded by the Bureau of Indian Affairs to look at land options. It could be two years before the study is complete, however, and another three years before funding is secured, says Stanley Speaks, the BIA’s Northwest Regional Director. It could be at least a decade before the plan is fully enacted, he says.

"We don’t have the time to study this thing," Jaime says. "We need a plan for what’s going to happen this winter."

The author is a former HCN intern who now reports for the Colorado Springs Independent.

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