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Long Island Native American Tribe Losing Land Due to Rising Sea Levels

Mila McKee, Aquaculture Manager at Shinnecock, is an oyster farmer in Headey Creek, Southampton.

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SOUTHAMPTON, New York. The Shinnecock Indian nation once had seasonal villages stretching across the eastern end of Long Island. But after centuries of land loss and forced relocation, more than 600 tribe members now live on a shrinking 1.5 square mile peninsula.

The Shinnekoki, whose name means “people of the rocky shore,” are fighting to save what is left of their land as climate change is causing sea levels to rise and the coastline eroding. The tribe used nature to restore the land, from building oyster reefs to lining up boulders on the coastline to dull the wave energy of Shinnekock Bay.

“This is the only place where we have to stay. This is our homeland, ”said Shavon Smith, director of the tribe’s environmental department, as she walked past a frightened, threatened burial ground. “And that’s all that’s left of him.”

Since the mid-19th century, the Shinnekocks have had a reservation of about 800 acres, part of their traditional land. By the end of the century, the sea level is projected to rise from 2.1 to 4.4 feet in Shinnekock lands. According to the Tribe’s Climate Change Adaptation Report, nearly half of the peninsula will be inundated if there is a 100-year storm in 2050, when sea levels are 1.5 feet higher than today.

“The water level is getting higher. I’ve seen it, ”said Mila McKee, Shinnecock aquaculture manager, who grows oysters and restores shellfish populations in a stream on the tribe’s land. “Everyone is affected by this.”

Across the coastline from the reservation, sea level rise is also hitting the affluent coastal communities of Southampton, where some homeowners have resorted to building sea walls that temporarily hold back water, causing the beach to erode. The federal government intends to spend billions of dollars to strengthen waterfront and protect real estate in areas such as Fire Island, Southampton and East Hampton.

The Shinekok tribe’s battle to save their land from rising sea levels and erosion reflects the broader issue of racial inequality and environmental justice in the United States, where historically oppressed and disenfranchised indigenous groups have been left more vulnerable to climate change. As global temperatures rise and climate disasters become more frequent and intense, marginalized groups are forced to fight and adapt to climate change.

Over the centuries, European settlers, and later the US government, forcibly relocated indigenous tribes to marginal lands more vulnerable to climate hazards. Research published in Science in October found that tribal peoples had lost 99% of their historical territory. The land they stayed on is often more prone to natural disasters such as heat waves, wildfires and droughts, and also has less economic value due to its lower mineral resource potential.

Shinnecock are restoring shellfish populations at Heady Creek and are building an oyster reef to dampen the wave energy along the bay.

Emma Newburger | CNBC

Hurricane Sandy in 2012 caused particular damage to the reservation. It washed away the steep banks of Great Pekonik Bay, flooded a cemetery, and tore roofs off tribal buildings and homes. Research shows that more than $ 8 billion out of a total damage of $ 60 billion from Sandy was associated with rising sea levels.

A massive resettlement due to climate change would be devastating for the Shinnekok, who have inhabited this piece of land for generations. Unlike many coastal homeowners in the Hamptons who may have moved inland, Shinnecock, like other Native American reservations throughout the United States, has strict boundaries and cultural ties to the land.

“Shinnecock was limited,” said Alison Branco, coastal director of the Nature Conservancy in New York. “It’s one thing to ask people to move inland when they have a city. But when your reservation is already small and shrinking due to rising sea levels, that’s a completely different situation. “

Deep connection with a disappearing land

The Shinnekoks are descended from the Pequote and Narragansett tribes in southern New England. In the mid-17th century, European settlers arrived to the east of Long Island and invaded tribal lands, bringing infectious diseases that wiped out the Shinekok population.

For generations, the Shinnekok have lived in seasonal villages on Long Island, where they moved closer to the water in the spring and summer, and into the woodlands in the fall and winter. Most of the reservation is now located on the low-lying southern peninsula in Shinnekock Bay, which is particularly vulnerable to ocean storm surges and floods. Climate change is also degrading water quality due to rising temperatures, salinity and acidification.

Shavon Smith, director of the Shinnecock Nation’s environmental department, stands on the shores of Shinnecock Bay.

Emma Newburger / CNBC

Today, one in five residents of the reservation lives below the poverty line. Life on the reservation is in stark contrast to the surrounding communities where the Hamptons’ elite live, many of whom have come into conflict with the Shinnekocks over the tribe’s plans to build casinos to stimulate the economy.

The tribe is now doing everything it can to combat rising sea levels that have eroded beaches and flooded homes.

In 2014, the tribe received a $ 3.75 million grant from the National Fish and Wildlife Fund to restore part of the coastline. Chinnecock used the money to build an oyster reef along the bay that softens wave energy and protects nearby homes from storm surges. The tribe also planted seagrass and beach grass to keep the sand in place, and lined large boulders near the tide line to protect the grass.

Shinnecock also recently received government funding to implement the Heady Creek Water Quality and Coastal Erosion Management Plan. The tribe is expanding the oyster hatchery and hopes the facility will grow more reefs along the bay, improve water quality and produce oysters for the local market.

Headey Creek is located between the Shinnecock Reservation and Meadow Lane, a street that runs from the tip of the Southampton barrier island and is made up mostly of mansions valued at tens of millions of dollars. McKee said fertilizer runoff from these houses affected the water quality in the stream and fears the increased acidification will harm his shellfish.

“The ecosystem is so precious,” McKee said as he walked along the stream. “It becomes more vulnerable as the area is developed.”

Expensive seaside homes in Southampton are vulnerable to coastal erosion and rising sea levels.

Emma Newburger / CNBC

Natural solutions to prevent erosion are often cheaper and better for the ecosystem than other projects, such as building sea walls, which the city of Southampton has encouraged residents not to build. So far, Smith said, Shinnecock’s efforts have successfully contained water.

Moving forward, the tribe said it needed additional funding to put more sand on the beach and expand the oyster reef. However, these are temporary plans.

“None of this prevents the water from rising. Eventually they will be flooded, ”Branko said. “The only solution that will be sustainable in the long term is to make room for the ocean through mass relocation.”

Solutions to prevent sea level rise are temporary

The problem is terrible all over the world. According to research published in Nature Climate Change magazine… By 2050, the Chinnecock area of ​​Southampton could experience chronic flooding in excess of 6 feet. in accordance with climatic models.

Branco said that while the US EPA and the Federal Emergency Management Agency have given some grants to the Shinnecock Nation, the scale of what the tribe receives is orders of magnitude smaller than the investment that the federal government intends to channel. strengthening coastlines in wealthy areas of Long Island.

Since the mid-19th century, the Shinnekocks have had a reservation of about 800 acres, part of their traditional land.

Emma Newburger / CNBC

The US intends to spend at least $ 1.7 billion over the next three decades to fortify about 80 miles of Long Island’s waterfront with sand infusions within From Fire Island to the Montauk Point Project

The project, led by the US Army Corps of Engineers and slated to begin in December, includes millions of dollars to pump sea sand back to beaches and raise coastal homes on piles in areas such as Fire Island, Southampton, and Montauk, where homes are on the waterfront. the lines are located above. flood risk is currently being sold at a huge premium. The project also targets thousands of homes for elevation projects in the less prosperous area of ​​Mustique Beach, where the average home price is roughly $ 330,000.

The Army Corps project will direct funding to areas that will prevent maximum economic damage while preserving the environment. In areas with expensive real estate, it is usually cheaper for the government to raise a flood-prone home than to buy and destroy it. This could lead to more foreclosures and relocation to less affluent areas as flooding conditions worsen, while people in high-priced areas can stay in their places longer.

“It’s a misconception that we only raise houses that cost a lot of money,” said James D’Ambrosio, an Army Corps spokesman in New York. “We are doing everything in our power with the funds we have to give taxpayers the best possible return on their investment.”

Shinnecock, in their adaptation report, stated that mass relocation due to climate change is unrealistic because their people are inherently land-bound. But given the bleak forecasts of rising sea levels on Long Island, experts say the tribe – and many other Long Island residents – may ultimately have no choice.

Smith, who has lived on the reservation her entire life, described how the Shinnekock elders noticed the changing coastline and worried about how the land would look to their grandchildren.

“We have an emotional, spiritual and genetic attachment to this place,” Smith said. “Being able to leave this will bring a lot of trauma to people who have already experienced historical trauma.”


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