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As Storms Erode California's Cliffs, Buried Village Could Get Washed Away

Michael Peterson, an archaeologist at Redwood National Park in California, photographs the coastline annually to monitor erosion of archaeological sites.
Jes Burns/OPB/EarthFix
Michael Peterson, an archaeologist at Redwood National Park in California, photographs the coastline annually to monitor erosion of archaeological sites.

Winter storms have been eroding coastal bluffs at California's Redwood National Park, and as the cliffs disappear, the buried remains of Native American archaeological sites are at risk for falling into the ocean.

One such site is called Summer Place, says Suntayea Steinruck, a member of the Tolowa Dee-ni' Nation and a tribal heritage preservation officer. Her ancestors hunted and fished around what used to be a small village there.

"Knowing that our ancestors derived from this place. I mean, it's beautiful here. It has a name for a reason, you know: Summer Place," Steinruck says from a bluff high above the ocean. "We have that connection with the environment, I think, and knowing exactly where we come from."

The cliffs have eroded about 3 feet since 2007, says Michael Peterson, a Redwood National Park archaeologist. He connects the recent intensity and frequency of winter storms to global climate change.

"I've seen whole logs, redwood logs laying up on top the rocks that are like 12 feet above the high-tide level. You could tell how big the storm, the waves were," he says.

Standing on the bluff, Peterson pulls out a series of old photos and maps of the cliffs.

He does a quick visual comparison with the land before him. Descending toward the beach, he sees evidence of a fire pit that wasn't visible previously.

For years, Redwood National Park and local tribes have collaborated to stabilize the ground at the old Tolowa village site. They've built fences and trails to keep visitors out of erosion-prone areas. They've laid down jute fiber to hold the ground and encourage vegetation.

But it's difficult to hold back the ocean. And at heavily used sites like this one, national park visitors themselves present an additional challenge, Peterson says.

"At any place you have historic or prehistoric activity, in combination with climate change and erosion, you will have increased amount of artifacts coming to the surface," he says.

That has made looting easier. The park and tribes are working to increase their presence here, but funding is short. Until now, the archaeological philosophy of the park at this village site has been "keep it in the ground" — largely out of respect to tribal members, like Steinruck and her ancestors. But climate change may force them to reconsider that approach.

"How do we maintain their resting spots to where they're not disturbed? Or how do we address them in a way that's culturally appropriate? And so for me, that's a heavy burden I think a lot of us have to bear, because we have to look at that reality of it," Steinruck says.

The reality is, despite all the park's efforts, the Summer Place is still eroding. The park and tribes may soon need to decide whether they should study the village site more intrusively before it washes away.

Copyright 2016 Oregon Public Broadcasting