Planning Magazine

Tulalip Tribes Take the Lead on Climate Action

“Being strong and resilient to change is already a part of who we are and how we live.”

Article Hero Image

"We must be prepared to address the changes coming our way to live the resiliency our ancestors handed down," says Patti Gobin from the Tulalip Tribes Natural Resources Department. Photo courtesy of Ben Lubbers.

According to Patti Gobin from the Tulalip Natural Resources Department, her people are prepared to face the challenges of a changing climate. That's because adapting to change isn't a new concept for the Tulalip Tribes, the native people whose Reservation is located in northwestern Washington state, north of Everett along the Snohomish River.

"Since time immemorial, Coast Salish people have been dealing with changes that have impacted how we live our lifeways," says Gobin. "The coming of western civilization, an economy-based society, and changing climate [all] have had impacts."

For Gobin and the Tulalip people, "Being strong and resilient to change is already a part of who we are and how we live."

This approach is connected to cultural values that have been passed down for generations through traditional stories, teachings, and songs, she says, like "Her First Basket," which communicates the importance of following and upholding the teachings of their ancestors. "We must be prepared to address the changes coming our way to live the resiliency our ancestors handed down," Gobin says.

These long-held values guide the Tulalip Climate Adaptation Core Planning Team (CACPT), a coalition of tribal departments dedicated to mitigating climate change and adapting to its impacts. Through its policies and programs, the Tulalip people are working to build an even stronger, more resilient community that can withstand the impacts of climate change.

Leaders in climate planning

Climate change has already had a significant impact on the daily life of many Native American tribes. Reservations are typically more isolated, and indigenous people generally live closer to and are more dependent on the environment than other communities. That means they often experience the negative impacts more regularly and acutely.

As a result, the Tulalip people and other Native American tribes are taking the lead on planning for climate change. According to a database maintained by the University of Oregon, at least 50 tribes across the U.S. have assessed climate risks and developed plans to tackle them. With more than 570 federally recognized tribes controlling 50 million combined acres, tribal planning and adaptation efforts are building resilient communities throughout Indian Country.

A tribal survey showed that more than 95 percent of respondents believe climate change will affect their way of life. Source: Tulalip Tribes Climate Change and Hazard Mitigation survey.

Indigenous people generally live closer to and are more dependent on the natural environment than other communities in the U.S. A Tulalip survey shows that more than 95 percent of respondents are concerned about the impacts of climate change on local flora and flauna significant to the tribes. Source: Tulalip Tribes Climate Change and Hazard Mitigation survey.

For the Tulalip Tribes and other Native Nations in the Pacific Northwest, the need for healthy rivers, forests, and oceans that support healthy salmon runs is at the forefront of these planning efforts — and has been for decades.

This work includes a larger effort to coordinate with — and in some cases litigate — city, state, county, and federal agencies to advocate for and protect tribal treaty rights. A lot of this coordination has to do with sharing scientific information, reviewing data, and talking to tribes to better understand what the impacts are.

The CACPT, for example, is closely monitoring the latest regional and global scientific information and local conditions. That includes conducting scientific studies and gathering information about the local area from tribal members, tribal elders, and other community members. In some cases, that includes memories and connections to special places that have been passed down between generations. This information is important to help prioritize and protect those places, both on and off the Reservation.

A culture of strength and adaptation

To help guide climate action efforts, the CACPT conducted a Climate Change and Hazard Mitigation (CCHM) survey in November 2019. The results confirm that the Tulalip people are more aware of the local impacts of climate change: 44 percent of respondents have noticed more frequent extreme weather events locally, and 88 percent have noticed chnages in temperature. In addition, 28 percent have noticed more frequent flooding, and 26 percent have seen an increase in landslides.

One of the culturally significant places respondents are concerned about is the shoreline. According to the survey, 28 percent of respondents have witnessed coastal erosion over the years, and 42 percent have noticed damage to roads and other infrastructure. A majority, 67 percent, also fear the way climate change will impact local plants and animals like orcas, salmon, and huckleberries.

The Tulalip Natural Resources Department is working hard to determine the extent of the problem. In some cases, coastal erosion is natural, but according to observations from Tulalip fisherman, coastal erosion seems to be happening more often than in the past.

Ashlynn Danielson, the Tulalip Tribes emergency manager, stresses that everyone can help understand and mitigate the impacts of climate change. Photo courtesy of Ben Lubbers.

Ashlynn Danielson, the Tulalip Tribes emergency preparedness maintenance manager, stresses that everyone can help understand and mitigate the impacts of climate change. Photo courtesy of Ben Lubbers.

To help address this issue, the Tulalip's CACPT has been monitoring the potential impacts sea level rise could pose, including assessing low-lying coastal areas during annual king tides, or especially high spring tides, to find particularly vulnerable areas and infrastructure. This provides a glimpse about 25 to 50 years into the future, when regular high tides could potentially reach those levels.

The ability of community members to withstand weather disasters is also a concern. That's where the Emergency Management Department's Hazard Mitigation Plan comes in.

For example, more frequent windstorms tend to cause more frequent power outages. Together with the departments of public works and utilities, the team has worked to increase the amount of back-up generators for tribal facilities like the Tulalip Health Clinic and new police and court buildings.

In addition, public works has developed a new fuel reserve located on the Tulalip Reservation in case fuel is needed to keep generators going longer. The department's emergency preparedness maintenance manager, Ashlynn Danielson, and her team embrace the opportunity to uphold and serve their people, she says — a value highlighted by the traditional story "How Daylight Was Stolen."

Everyone plays a part

It's not all about adaptation. The Tulalip government and its community also aim to reduce carbon emissions.

According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), cutting carbon emissions from energy and transportation sources will not be enough. The IPCC states that, in order to keep global temperatures at safe levels, the world also needs to transform the way it produces, packages, and transports food. This will require a sincere effort to change — from individuals, certainly, but more significantly from governments, nonprofits, local businesses, and corporations from around the world. Specifically, the way energy and food are provided and consumed will need to change.

Taking doctor's orders from Mother Earth isn't something that everyone is willing to do. According to the CCHM survey, however, 84 percent of respondents are either extremely willing or very willing to change their day-to-day behavior to help reduce the impacts of climate change.

While the required change can feel overwhelming, the Tulalip Tribes' traditional and cultural values offer guidance and support, as represented in the traditional story "How We Got the Salmon Ceremony," which encourages the Tulalip to work hard and always try their best.

You don't need to be a climate scientist to help your community plan and adapt, adds Danielson, the emergency maintenance department's manager. Everyone has something to offer in terms of observing and providing information to better understand these changes.

Showing respect and listening to every individual is a significant cultural value, one communicated in another well-known traditional story, "Lifting Up The Sky." Listening to elders, youth, tribal leaders, fisherman, employees, tribal members, and community members is an important part of Tulalip's efforts to adapt to and plan for climate change.

Ben Lubbers is an associate planner for Tulalip Tribes. A version of this article first appeared in The Western Planner and Tulalip News. It was reprinted here with permission.