Reaching Higher Ground: Avenues to Secure and Manage New Land for Communities Displaced by Climate Change

From the Center for Progressive Reform, this paper provides an analysis of the legal, policy, and corporate tools to acquire and govern land to relocate a community. It presents the most promising approaches that could feed into workable strategies for land acquisition, with the aim of protecting people and property in the short term, promoting climate resiliency in the long-term, and maintaining important cultural and economic assets. A number of case studies are included, many of which are focused on Native Americans and Alaskan Natives, since sea level rise and in turn coastal relocation is a present issue among these communities. The paper outlines acquisition strategies for for federally recognized tribal communities and other communities more broadly.

Understand the suite of options that your community might employ to advance relocation efforts. 

The report explains that most relocation efforts have happened when severe risks turn into actual harm, such as erosion and flooding that destroys roads and sewage systems. Climate change projections often suggest that there is limited time before the area is entirely uninhabitable. If the community can agree to move, they then must determine a prospective site, access funding, and manage the resettlement process.

The Center suggests some tools that communities can employ to acquire new land, including to:   

  • Generate revenues to purchase lands –  this might include a new tax or a community land trust.
  • Enter tribal lands into a federal trust – which makes it eligible for federal funding opportunities.
  • Obtain grants and loans to purchase land – federally recognized tribes can pursue government and commercial loans.
  • Obtain land grants or exchanges through federal legislation – lobby Congress to pass legislation that conveys land to the tribe for relocation.
  • Use estate planning and land exchanges to acquire land – federally recognized tribes can consolidate fragmented land to acquire enough contiguous land suitable for community relocation.
  • Reclaim land through litigation – tribes can reclaim land if they find it is subject to historical claims.
  • Use takings and negligence lawsuits – If the government fails to protect localities from climate destruction, communities could use a negligence or takings lawsuit against the government.
  • Use a nonprofit corporation to acquire lands – such as a homeowner’s association.
  • Obtain federal grants to acquire lands through municipal governments – such as FEMA and HUD grants for post-disaster buyout programs.

Strategies to preserve ownership of evacuated sites (which may provide important resources and cultural resources) are given also: 

  • Negotiate an easement on the land to ensure continuing access to historic sites, roads, or natural resources.
  • Use a historic treaty that preserves tribal members’ right to access land they do not own.
  • When negotiating land exchanges for relocation, offer only surface rights to continue access to cemeteries, fishing grounds, etc.

The paper recognizes that relocation can pose a deeper existential threat to tribal communities because place plays an important role in cultural and religious identities. Even more, the historical context of forced relocation continues to weigh on these communities. At the same time, federally recognized tribes possess distinct political and legal rights that add to the toolbox of strategies they can rely upon. For example, tribes ae able to obtain grants or loans to support acquisition and administration of tribal lands.

Publication Date: May 2017

Resource Author(s):

  • Maxine Burkett
  • Robert R.M. Verchick
  • David Flores

Related Organizations:

  • Center for Progressive Reform

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Resource Types:

  • Case study
  • Legal Analysis
  • Policy analysis/recommendations

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