Thanks to Nicola Jones for this:
With their deep ties to the land and reliance on fishing, hunting, and gathering, indigenous tribes are especially vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. Now, native communities across North America are stepping up to adopt climate action plans to protect their way of life.
On a hot summer’s day, marine ecologist Courtney Greiner walks the shore of a rocky Washington beach at low tide with a handful of staff and interns. They stake out the ground and hunch down, digging up the top two inches of mud, silt, and gravel looking for baby clams.
For thousands of years, the indigenous peoples of the West Coast would build rock walls at the low tide line, allowing sand to pile up behind them, making the slope of the beach gentler, and expanding the area of the intertidal zone that clams like to call home. These simple clam gardens are effective at boosting shellfish numbers, and have long been used to improve food security for traditional peoples.
Now the Swinomish are reviving the old idea to build the first modern clam garden in the United States. Greiner, who works for the Swinomish tribe, is collecting the data that will help the tribe determine the garden’s best location. The project aims to boost clam numbers, providing both a sense of purpose for the community and additional food as other resources, like salmon, decline.
This is just part of the Swinomish’s plan to ensure the ongoing prosperity of their people in the face of a changing climate. “They were the first native community — and really one of the first communities, period — to make climate adaptation a priority,” says Meade Krosby, a conservation biologist with the University of Washington’s Climate Impacts Group. The tribe’s climate proclamation came out in 2007, and their action plan, published in 2010, was one of the first such documents in the United States. “They’re early adopters and really innovative,” she says.
The Swinomish have already launched projects aimed at helping the community adapt to a shifting climate in the Pacific Northwest. To protect salmon runs, the tribe is working on the Skagit River to create better spawning beds and is planting trees to provide shade and reduce river temperatures. In addition, the tribe is fighting to block mining operations in the headwaters of the Skagit in British Columbia, which could impact waters downstream.
Another project aims to restore a healthy population of native Olympia oysters, long threatened by pollution and crowding out by competitive Pacific oysters and now impacted by ocean acidification. Workers have brought in truckloads of oyster shells and dumped them on beaches to provide new homes for imported natives; the imports grow well, says Greiner, but so far have yet to produce a next generation of shellfish. “It’s a learning process,” she says. A site for the first clam garden should be chosen by next year. And a wetlands project is documenting the local plants that have ecological and cultural importance to the Swinomish, as part of efforts to better manage the changing coast for salmon and farmers alike.
Across North America, other indigenous communities are stepping up to formulate and enact climate action plans to protect their way of life. In 2019, the Karuk tribe of northern California released its climate adaptation plan with a recommendation to return to prescribed burning, an old idea that might help to ease California’s wildfire problems. The Tulalip tribes of Washington state are relocating nuisance beavers from urban areas back to traditional watersheds to help lower river temperatures and aid salmon populations; they are also redirecting agricultural runoff for electricity generation. The Jamestown S’Klallam tribe in Washington is removing invasive butterfly bushes from the banks of the Dungeness River to help protect its salmon. The Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes of Montana are gathering and planting seedlings of the whitebark pine that are more resistant to warming-related diseases such as blister rust. Alaskan tribes are using microscopy to identify harmful algae blooms spurred by warming waters. The list goes on.
“Indigenous peoples have always been on the front lines,” says Nikki Cooley, who grew up without electricity or running water on the Navajo Nation reservation and now co-manages the Tribes and Climate Change Program for the Institute for Tribal Environmental Professionals (ITEP) in Flagstaff, Arizona. “Tribes have always been adapting to climate change. Now we have to adapt even faster.”
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