Rural communities is Alaska—predominantly Alaska Native Tribes—are at the forefront of climate change impacts and climate justice concerns in the United States. According to the 2019 Alaska statewide threat assessment report, 29 communities are currently experiencing significant climate change-related erosion. Further, 38 communities faces significant flooding, and 35 have major problems with thawing permafrost. Some Alaska Native communities have explored community relocation to adapt to these impacts. Because federal law does not recognize gradual environmental impacts like thawing permafrost and coastal erosion as disasters, these communities are ineligible for disaster funding and struggling with how to adapt to the very urgent—albeit less immediate—issues that they face.
This article analyzes the chalenges of Alaska Native Tribes attempting to access federal assistance for community relocation. While some posit that the federal trust responsibility for Tribal Nations might help leverage federal help with community relocation, the status of Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA) extinguished almost all claims of aboriginal title and reservations in Alaska. General access to federal disaster funding and programs may be another avenue for assistance; however, the limited definition of "disaster" and overly burdensome requirements for federal programs mean that many Alaska Native communities are left to struggle on their own.
In response to these challenges, this article explores possible solutions to help these communities with their relocation efforts. It examines the newly adopted Building Resilient Communities and Infrastructure Program as a potential funding opportunity for community relocation efforts, along with programs focused on climate justice. Finally, the article concludes by proposing the expansion of a state role in helping coordinate federal grant programs on behalf of Alaska Native Tribes and the funding of resilience officers by the federal government at regional Alaska Native organizations to navigate requirements for community relocation grant programs.
Lara Fowler, Ekrem Korkut, Kathleen E. Halvorsen, David Holen, E. Lance Howe, and Guangqing Chi, Addressing Climate Impacts in Alaska Native Tribes: Legal Barriers for Community Relocation due to Thawing Permafrost and Coastal Erosion, 40 UCLA J. Envt'l L. & Pol'y 185 (2022).