Indian tribe seeks higher ground


If anything is a certainty here, it is rain.

Blinding sheets, gentle showers, a slow drizzle in the trees -- it comes in different forms almost every day. The Hoh Rain Forest on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula gets more precipitation than anywhere else in the continental United States, up to 14 feet a year.

Floods happen so often on the Hoh Indian Reservation that the wood-plank structure housing its administrative offices is permanently surrounded by sandbags, as are several buildings nearby. Half a dozen homes on the reservation have been abandoned or washed away by the constant flooding -- not to mention the occasional tsunami.

Alexis Barry, the tribe’s executive director, keeps a pair of wader boots next to her computer. “Where before, maybe a large flood used to be a 10-year event, the last few years it’s been almost an annual event,” Barry said. “It’s just wet all the time.”


So fed up are this tribe’s 133 resident members that, after 106 years here at the Hoh River’s edge, they have launched a bid to move -- not just a few houses, but their entire village -- to higher ground.

If passed as expected, a bill due to be introduced in Congress will award 37 acres of nearby Olympic National Park to the Hoh tribe and allow members to consolidate and place into permanent trusteeship other new lands they have purchased. The move in effect would double the size of the reservation and place its inhabited areas well out of the way of damaging tides and floods.

In exchange, tribal leaders have pledged not to log or hunt on the national park lands that are to become part of the reservation.

“We . . . certainly understand their need to have housing and other facilities outside of the flood zone and outside of the tsunami zone, so we have been working closely with the tribe to help develop language that will reflect both the tribe’s needs and interests that the park has,” park spokeswoman Barb Maynes said.

The Hoh reservation is 28 miles south of Forks, Wash. -- the dark and rainy setting for the popular teenage vampire series “Twilight” -- and straddles the only coniferous rain forest in the continental United States, one of the jewels of the Western national park system.

The tribe took title to the reservation in 1893, but the Hoh River has since shifted half a mile to the south, endangering homes and tribal buildings as it makes its final -- often tempestuous -- hurtle into the Pacific Ocean.

“I used to live right there,” Amy Benally, the tribe’s director of health and wellness programs, said one recent afternoon as she stood in what once was the center of the village. Now there is nothing but a couple of boarded-up houses and piles of driftwood.

Some of the village disappeared during a tsunami many years ago, said former tribal chairwoman Mary Leitka.

“We’ve actually had two” tsunamis, she said. “The earliest one I can remember, it was in the 1950s. We had just got a fish house down at the lower river, and all of a sudden . . . the park ranger [was yelling] . . . ‘You’ve got to get up to higher ground, because a tidal wave is coming.’ ”

Leitka said the entire tribe ran up on a hill and watched as the sea retreated far back from the beach.

“It was amazing. I’d never seen it get dry like that. And then all of a sudden we seen that wave coming, and it . . . came right up the river and grabbed that new fish house and took it right out.”

Leitka and other tribal leaders believe road construction and widespread logging in the hills outside the reservation worsened flooding by pouring debris into the river. Even the newer houses, which have been built on somewhat higher ground, are seeing the river edge closer every year. In 2006, floodwaters covered the area around the tribal headquarters and several homes.

This month, widespread flooding across Washington again had tribe members out working the sandbags.

Thanks to gambling revenues distributed to every tribe in Washington, even those like the Hoh that do not have their own casino, the tribe has been able to buy two large tree farm parcels adjacent to the reservation. The state has donated an additional parcel.

Adding the 37-acre corridor that is part of Olympic National Park will make the lands contiguous and allow the tribe to put its administration and other government buildings, a new fire station and the bulk of its housing on higher ground.

A new clinic and police station already have been constructed on land the tribe owns outside the flood zone, near the proposed new tribal village.

Still, Barry said, the move will take years. “It’s a huge endeavor,” she said.

Federal officials said the legislation authorizing the park land transfer probably would win final passage soon.

“Since it’s safety-related and all parties appear to be in agreement, all that’s required is an adequate hearing,” said George Behan, spokesman for U.S. Rep. Norm Dicks (D-Wash.), who is sponsoring the legislation.

The relocation plan has touched off a renaissance for the tribe of 220 registered members. Hoh who fled the reservation years ago are beginning to move back.

“Now that we’re moving out of the flood zone, we’re eligible for grant funding again, and that has made all the difference,” said Benally, who returned to the reservation a year ago after a 14-year absence. “It has opened all kinds of new doors. There are people coming back we haven’t seen in years, saying, ‘What can we do to help?’ ”