At a Nov. 4 hearing, Rep. Don Young (R-AK), chairman of the Indian, Insular and Alaska Native Affairs Subcommittee took testimony on a bill related to tribes and the Coastal Zone Management program.
HR 2719, the “Tribal Coastal Resiliency Act,” sponsored by Rep. Derek Kilmer (D-WA), would “amend the Coastal Zone Management Act of 1972 to authorize grants to Indian tribes to further achieve tribal coastal zone objectives.”
None of the committee members had any objection to HR 2719, or the other bills heard that day, and all will be reported out of committee and scheduled for floor action at the earliest opportunity.
In his testimony, Rep. Kilmer said his bill would allow tribal governments to compete directly for Coastal Zone Management Act (CZMA) funds, instead of requiring them to petition states to prioritize their projects. This would help the tribal governments address some of the severe challenges they face in implementing coastal and shoreline measures that support public safety, public access, and cultural and historic preservation.
“Unfortunately, these threats cannot be adequately addressed by tribal governments alone,” Rep. Kilmer said. “Without proper mitigation, coastal heritage sites and tribal communities are at risk of washing into the water.”
Sea level rise and severe storms have been putting people’s lives and property at risk on an annual basis, Rep. Kilmer added. Tribes that are trying to relocate their communities or move facilities out of harm’s way are dealing with a difficult process. They also need funds for new infrastructure.
HR 2719 would open a new funding source for rural tribal communities.
“From the perspective of tribal sovereignty, I believe that tribes shouldn’t have to rely on the states to get access to funds that are critical to keeping their communities safe,” he said.
Rep. Young asked what will be gained by the tribes if this legislation is passed.
Rep. Kilmer responded that the capacity to seek funds directly from CZMA is the bill’s primary benefit.
Rep. Young asked Rep. Kilmer if he knew the actual cost for tribal communities to stop erosion or move facilities, and what other agencies would be involved with this.
Rep. Kilmer responded that his bill wouldn’t change anything related to the total amount of funds in the CZMA. It just “allows the tribes to get a bite at an apple that it already possesses without having to go through the state process.”
Rep. Young said that whether or not tribal communities decide to move, they would still need to obtain brand new environmental statements or studies, and would still need to deal with inevitable permit delays.
Rep. Young said the HR 2719 doesn’t go far enough in enabling emergency declarations in cases of erosion or flooding. He said he would like to add provisions to the bill to streamline the process.
Fawn R. Sharp, President of the Quinault Indian Nation, testified that the bill would allow tribal nations to protect their communities and cultural resources from extreme weather situations. Over the past several years, the Quinault Nation has endured one natural disaster after another, she said.
The Sandy Recovery Improvement Act of 2013 amended the Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief & Emergency Assistance Act to allow tribal governments to work directly with the federal government to declare disasters and access FEMA funding. In many instances, disaster declarations are the only recourse for badly needed money.
Prior to the act’s amendment, tribal governments needed to request state governors to petition the federal government on their behalf. Sharp thanked Rep. Rep. Jeff Denham (R-CA), a subcommittee member, for including the Stafford Act amendment in the Sandy Recovery Improvement Act.
She said that enactment of the Resiliency Act is the next natural step after the Stafford Act amendment. It would respect tribal sovereignty and governmental status, providing access to direct funding that tribes could use to develop projects to prevent disasters before they occur.
“Funding from both state and federal agencies are too often emergency-based and do not adequately cover preventative measures to address ongoing hardship, property loss, and infrastructure damage to our villages,” she said. “We should not have to wait for an emergency to address the compounding issues in coastal areas.”
Tribes could also use the grant money to advance tribal coastal zone objectives such as public safety mitigation, and the protection, restoration, or preservation of cultural value areas.
Tribes are the best stewards for land and culture, Sharp said, but all CZMA funding is currently offered exclusively to state governments, leaving tribes unable to manage and support their homelands.
Sharp’s full account can be found in her written testimony.
Sharp was asked how Washington State has used the CZMA program to help her tribe mitigate public safety and cultural preservation concerns. She answered that the tribe is only able to access these funds when an emergency exists and that they aren’t available for preventative measures or long term planning.
She was asked if how the tribe’s way of life would be affected if flooding and storm surges should continue unabated. She said that many cultural locations are now gone. Every day they seem to wash away. Plan B is to relocate village to higher ground.
Rep. Young asked Sharp about her experience in administering a state of emergency, saying that under present law the tribes have to go through the entire permitting process to get an emergency declaration. She answered that under the current Stafford Act the Quinault Nation has the authority to declare states of emergency within its territory.
With no objections to HR 2719, Rep. Young clarified that the legislation will be considered on the House floor as soon as possible.