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In a First, U.S. Pays Tribes to Move Away From Climate Threats

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WASHINGTON — The Biden administration will give money to five Native American tribes to help them relocate away from rivers and coastlines, potentially creating a model for other communities around the country as the effects climate change get worse.

The funding, which will go to three tribes in Alaska and two in Washington State, marks the start of a new federal program specifically designed to relocate people and homes threatened by climate change. It appears to be the first such program in American history.

“We’re definitely grateful,” said Nate Tyler, the treasurer of the Makah Tribe, whose coastal reservation in Washington State is increasingly exposed to flooding. The tribe will get $2.1 million to help replace its aging health clinic with a new building on higher land, farther from the Pacific.

The awards represent a shift in U.S. climate adaptation policy, toward what climate experts call “managed retreat” — the movement of buildings and infrastructure away from areas that are especially vulnerable to the consequences of global warming. That approach reflects the growing acknowledgment, among residents and policymakers alike, that some places are becoming either too difficult or too expensive to protect.

The relocation program could become a template for other federal agencies that work on disaster recovery. Those agencies, including the Federal Emergency Management Agency, are reconsidering the strategy of repeatedly rebuilding communities in places where they are vulnerable to floods, hurricanes and other threats.

But the relocation awards also present a challenge to government officials, who must decide which communities get funding to retreat. More than half the tribes that applied for the relocation program were rejected.

The Department of the Interior, which runs the program, declined to discuss its decision criteria.

The federal government has tried relocating communities threatened by climate change before. In 2016, the Obama administration provided $48 million to move a village in coastal Louisiana. This new program represents the first long-term effort to specifically relocate tribes threatened by climate change.

Many tribes were forced onto marginal or inhospitable land more than a century ago by the United States government, leaving them particularly vulnerable to the effects of global warming.

At least 11 tribes applied for relocation funding under the new $130 million program, according to records obtained by The New York Times through a public-records request. Six were rejected.

The winning tribes include the Akiak Native Community, a village of fewer than 500 people on the Kuskokwim River in Southwest Alaska. As average temperatures increase, the permafrost is melting, accelerating the erosion of the shoreline and forcing Akiak to pull back from the water.

The Interior Department will give Akiak $2.7 million. Michael Williams, the chief of the village, said he expected to be able to move 15 to 20 houses with that money. “It’s welcome funding,” Mr. Williams said.

Nunapitchuk, a village 40 miles west of Akiak facing similar challenges, will get $2.2 million to relocate. Chefornak, a village on the Kinia River not far from the Bering Sea, will get $3 million.

In Washington State, the other tribe to win funding, in addition to the Makah Tribe, was the Port Gamble S’Klallam Tribe, whose reservation is on the northern tip of Kitsap Peninsula, across the Puget Sound from Seattle. Flooding and coastal erosion are increasingly threatening the tribe’s buildings.

The tribe will get $2.1 million to demolish three homes near the water and rebuild them on safer land, according to the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

The money from the new program won’t be enough to fully fund the relocation of tribes, the cost of which can run into the tens or hundreds of millions of dollars. But when coupled with other sources of funding, it can make a meaningful difference, some tribal officials said.

On the northern shore of Washington State, along the Strait of Juan de Fuca, the Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe unsuccessfully sought money under the new program to relocate a house away from the water, as well as a laboratory that examines fish and water samples for evidence of climate change.

The tribe’s chairman, W. Ron Allen, was undeterred.

“Unfortunately there were other stronger, higher priorities,” said Mr. Allen, adding that the tribe will reapply next year. “We’re not discouraged.”

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