Village and Town Relocations

Flooding, erosion, and melting permafrost in the Arctic threaten many villages.  In the United States, numerous Alaska Native villages are under particular threat, although a complete assessment has not be finalized.  However, 31 villages were identified that faced imminent threats.  At least 12 of the 31 threatened villages have decided to relocate — in part or entirely — or to explore relocation options.  Relocation has significant consquences for community relationships and poses special challenges for Native groups with close historical and cultural ties to the land.

Alaska Relocation Plans and Studies

Kivalina Relocation Court Case

Alaska Relocation Plans and Studies

Federal programs to assist threatened villages prepare for and recover from disasters and to protect and relocate them are limited and unavailable to some villages. The Federal Emergency Management Agency has several disaster preparedness and recovery programs, but villages often fail to qualify for them, generally because they may lack approved disaster mitigation plans or have not been declared federal disaster areas. Although there is no single comprehensive proactive federal program to assist villages with their relocation efforts, individual federal agencies can assist villages on specific projects, such as funding the construction or relocation of homes.

However, according to the 2009 GAO report below, many villages do not qualify for affordable housing and relocation assistance from the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Community Development Block Grant program because the federal law governing the program does not recognize unincorporated Alaska Native villages in Alaska’s unorganized borough as eligible units of general local government.

U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Alaska Village Erosion Technical Assistance Program. 2006. “An Examination of Erosion Issues in the Communities of Bethel, Dillingham, Kaktovik, Kivalina, Newtok, Shishmaref, and Unalakleet.” 

U.S. Government Accountability Office. 2009. “Alaska Native Villages: Limited Progress Has Been Made on Relocating Villages Threatened by Flooding and Erosion.”

Recommendations Report to the Alaska Governor’s Subcabinet on Climate Change. 2008. “Final Report from the Immediate Action Workgroup.”

Shishmaref Erosion and Relocation Coalition. 2002. “Shishmaref Relocation Strategic Plan.”

U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. 2004. “Shishmaref Relocation and Collocation Study.”

U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. 2006. “Relocation Planning Project Master Plan: Kivalina, Alaska.” (Executive Summary)

Kivalina Relocation Court Case

In 2008, the village and city of Kivalina, Alaska, filed suit against 22 energy companies, including oil giants such as ExxonMobil Corp., BP Plc, Chevron Corp, and Shell Oil Co., alleging a breach of the federal common law of public nuisance for unreasonable discharge of greenhouse gases leading to global warming. Kivalina asserted that global warming has diminished sea ice formation on the coastline of the island city, sea ice that has traditionally protected the town against erosion and damaging winter storms.  As a result of these environmental changes, Kivalina is being forced to relocate (at an expense of more than $95 million, according to the US Army Corps of Engineers).

The case was dismissed by the Northern District of California in 2009, then appealed to the Ninth Circuit, who affirmed the dismissal in Sep 2012, and denied a petition for rehearing in Nov 2012.  March 2013, plaintiffs filed a petition for certoriari with the U.S. Supreme Court.

Northern District of California dismissal, Sep 30, 2009

Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals decision, Sep 21, 2012  Read SCCCL’s blog post covering the decision here.

Petition for re-hearing en banc, 2012

Petition for certoriari to the U.S. Supreme Court, 2013