The Hoh River can be as unforgiving as it is generous.
The Hoh people and their eponymous river have shared this rainforest valley on Washington state’s Pacific Coast since time immemorial. Salmon are abundant here, as are the cedar trees that produce wood for carved artwork and canoes, and fiber for beautifully woven baskets and clothing. At the river’s mouth, people dip for smelt; on the tidelands, clams, crab and surf perch are abundant.
The river valley tells the story of the Hoh people. Amid old-growth trees dripping with moss and forest floors that are vibrant with animal and plant life are documented village sites and places of ceremonial, religious and social importance in Hoh history.
But just as the Hoh people have counted on this river for salmon and other resources, they’ve become accustomed to its restlessness. The 56-mile river starts at a glacier on 7,980-foot Mount Olympus and picks up stream flows from a 299-square-mile drainage basin as it meanders toward the Pacific Ocean. Powered by 12 to 14 feet of annual rainfall in the basin, the river’s course has altered over time, whittling away at usable land on the one-square-mile reservation. Flooding has become an annual event. Some homes have been abandoned.
According to the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission (NWIFC), a recent study of the migrating main channel showed the river is likely to barrel through Hoh’s administration offices and more homes within the next 25 years.
In pre-reservation times, the Hoh people might have simply moved to accommodate the river’s changes in course, but reservation boundaries make that impossible. The alternatives: Build dikes or other structures that could protect the riverbank (but harm the salmon habitat), or move out of the flood zone.
The Hoh Tribe chose a more ambitious course. Between 2008 and 2009, it acquired 460 acres through a series of purchases from private owners and a transfer from the state Department of Natural Resources (DNR). But those 460 acres were considered “off-reservation,” separated from the reservation by a 37-acre swath of National Park Service (NPS) land. Acquiring those 37 acres would require an act of Congress.
Rep. Norm Dicks, D-Washington, introduced H.R. 1061, the Hoh Indian Tribe Safe Homelands Act in February 2009. The House approved the bill without opposition in June 2010. The Senate approved the bill in September 2010, and it was signed by President Barack Obama December 22. With the transfer of those 37 acres, the Hoh Reservation now comprises more than 1,100 contiguous acres from the Pacific Ocean in the west to U.S. Highway 101 in the east.
Daki Fisher, a hereditary chief and former Hoh chairman, is a habitat technician with the Hoh Tribe Fisheries and Natural Resources Department. He lives on Chalaat Loop, a river-area neighborhood of about 20 homes. About 115 people live in areas prone to flooding, he said. Fisher said he returned to the reservation in 1993 and, in that time, “I’ve seen quite a few floods. The water is now within 50 to 60 yards of some houses. If it keeps going the way it is, there’s increased potential for flooding.”
He estimates that 60 percent of the Hoh population is adult, and unemployment is high—most of those who have jobs either fish or work for the tribe. The Hoh Tribe offers a host of public services, among them fisheries, health, natural resources, social services and utilities. Community amenities include a food bank and nutrition center, and a community garden and greenhouse.
Fisher said the expansion will enable the Hoh people to build homes and government offices on safer ground, and expand their public services and economic development. On its new land, the tribe will build a fire station to be operated as part of their Jefferson County Fire Protection District; 10 tribal members will be trained as firefighters and emergency medical technicians. The tribe will also build a gas station and smoke shop on Highway 101. Living closer to 101 means that their children will have quicker (and drier) access to nearby public schools.
Seattle attorney Lisa Atkinson, Cherokee/Osage, who assisted the Hoh Tribe with the expansion for more than five years, said the transfer of the 37 acres of NPS land completed years of hard work. “The tribe has worked very hard to collaborate with all interested parties throughout this process and has had overwhelming support from all key players—NPS, state, county and local governments, private groups,” Atkinson said. “It has also taken tremendous dedication from all of the Tribal Council members over the past five-plus years.” Hoh leaders made numerous trips to Washington, D.C. and spent a lot of money “to engage experienced professionals to facilitate and coordinate necessary meetings to educate and garner support and commitments from federal agencies and members of Congress.”
As H.R. 1061 headed to the president’s desk for signature, Hoh Chairwoman Maria Lopez said the legislation couldn’t have come at a better time. “We [barely] avoided yet another flooding this past weekend, and the rainy season is upon us.” She said the Hoh government will “begin working with the various agencies on implementation to formally place the land into trust and begin help in relocating and rebuilding our village.”
Lopez thanked the bill’s sponsors: Rep. Dicks; Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Washington; Sen. Patty Murray, D-Washington; and co-sponsor Rep. Tom Cole, R-Oklahoma. She also thanked those who made the transfer of state DNR land possible: Gov. Chris Gregoire, seven state legislators, and three county commissioners.
Billy Frank Jr., Nisqually, chairs the NWIFC, which assists Washington state’s treaty tribes in fisheries and natural resource management. He applauded the path the Hoh Tribe took, which met the needs of the Hoh people without affecting salmon habitat. “I am encouraged by efforts to help the tribe move its tribal center and housing out of the path of the river,” he said on the NWIFC website. “Salmon are the lifeblood of our people. That is especially true for Hoh tribal members who rely on fishing both culturally and economically.”
The Quileute reservation, 40 miles north of the Hoh reservation, could also get a buffer from its flood and tsunami zones. On December 16, Dicks introduced a bill to transfer 772 acres of Olympic National Park land to the Quileute. The Quileute reservation is bordered by the Pacific Ocean to the west, and the national park to the north, south and east. The transfer of some 280 acres on the reservation’s southern boundary would enable Quileute to move its administration offices, elder center, school, and some homes to higher ground. On the northern boundary, the transfer of 492 acres would resolve a 50-year boundary dispute with the national park.