Swinomish Tribe raising community awareness about climate change

LA CONNER — Swinomish Tribe Water Resources Department staffers have been recognized as “Protectors of Mother Earth” for making a simple change at the annual community clam bake.

Instead of using paper plates and disposable utensils, the department brought real plates and silverware to the event held last summer at Lone Tree beach and the Thousand Trails lodge.

The tribe’s newly formed Climate Change Education and Awareness Group (CEAG) will recognize the water resources department’s effort in the monthly Kee-Yoks newsletter. The group is encouraging tribal members to make small changes that will benefit the environment and help reduce the causes of climate change.

“Our tribal leaders are at the forefront of the climate change movement,” said Shelly Vendiola, communications facilitator for the group.

The Swinomish Indian Senate signed a proclamation forming a Climate Change Initiative in October 2007 and the tribe’s Planning and Community Development Department released a climate change impact assessment report this fall, in partnership with the University of Washington Climate Impacts Group and the Skagit River System Cooperative.

The assessment found that more than 1,100 acres of Swinomish Reservation lands and about 160 residential structures are potentially at risk of inundation from increasing sea level rise or tidal surge. Traditional tribal beach seining sites and shellfish beds are at significant risk of permanent inundation and potential loss. Shellfish and salmon are at risk of higher levels of contamination from algal blooms and other diseases that may be exacerbated by increased temperature.

Not only are heat-related illnesses a concern for the reservation population, especially those who are ill or elderly, but tribal members in particular may be at risk of ailments such as asthma and toxic poisoning from the combined effects of pollutants.

“We’re looking at global issues and making the link to our local tribal community at Swinomish,” Vendiola said. “We are starting to raise awareness about climate change and its impacts, and how it’s going to affect such things as land use, transportation, housing, facilities, and natural and cultural resources such as shellfish, salmon and forested areas.”

CEAG is getting tribal members involved by informing families and youth through the tribal newsletter and raising awareness at community events such as holiday parties. The next step will bring community members together to talk about climate change and capture their concerns, which will help guide the actions of the Planning and Community Development Department.

“I’m impressed with the awareness of our young people, our next generation of leaders,” Vendiola said. “They will inherit this challenge, which in fact is a climate crisis. The strategy is to educate them now and begin to prepare them for how to adapt. The key for the next phase of the project is identifying community concerns, seasonal climate changes and ideas for adaptation.”

CEAG also can learn from the experiences of community members, especially elders, and get their input in the planning process. Already, tribal members have shared stories about roads eroding to within 25 feet of homes on the reservation, and increased concerns about sun protection.

“When I was a kid, we never sunburned,” said tribal member Brian Porter, who coaches the youth canoe club. “Now we have to keep an eye on the kids to make sure they don’t sunburn or get some skin disease.”

Support for the Swinomish Climate Change Initiative was provided through a grant from the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, Administration for Native Americans (ANA), which provided 80 percent of project funding.

Tips from the Education and Awareness Group include:

  • Recycle. Reuse. Renew
  • Unplug unused electronics
  • Install low-flow shower heads
  • Switch to compact fluorescent light bulbs
  • Take your own bags to stores

What is climate change?

Climate change, also known as global warming, occurs from increased amounts of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Changes that can be seen on the ground include rising sea levels, melting glaciers, reduced snowpacks, hotter summers, wetter winters and increased drought conditions.

Warmer climate affects salmon because it:

  • Increases water temperatures and decreases flows during spawning migrations, increasing prespawning mortality and reducing egg deposition;
  • Increases water temperatures during egg incubation stages, causing premature fry emergence and increased fry-to-smolt mortality; and
  • Increases the severity and frequency of winter floods, reducing egg-to-fry survival rates.

For more information: Swinomish Climate Change Initiative; Ed Knight, senior planner, Swinomish Tribe Planning and Community Development, 360-466-7280 or [email protected]; Shelly Vendiola, communications facilitator (consultant), CEAG, 206-280-4079 or [email protected]; Kari Neumeyer, information officer, Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission, 360-424-8226 or [email protected].