The rural South Beach area of southern Grays Harbor County and northern Pacific County is a story of change and adaptation: geophysically and socially, but also economically.
Water, land, harvest, and trade have connected place and people along this stretch of coastline for thousands of years. Those now identifying as the Shoalwater Bay Tribe, for whom this is an ancestral home, describe the area pre-colonization in terms of its bounty and many villages.1“About the Tribe,” Our Lands, Shoalwater Bay Tribe. European settlement and the origins of the modern local economy brought significant transformation—not only to the population, but to the landscape and nearshore environments. Settlers and subsequent generations constructed towns and outlying habitation; laid networks of roads; dredged and engineered waterways; constructed jetties, marinas, and lighthouses; and managed wetlands and tideflats for agriculture and aquaculture. Economy and the promise of gain both drove and benefitted from reshaping nature.
This reflects the story of America and westward expansion. What sets South Beach apart, and what makes its modern-day residents distinctly vulnerable, are physical and environmental forces continually altering the region—an eroding coastline, sea level rise, ocean acidification—and the certainty, albeit without certainty of when, that a large-magnitude offshore earthquake and resulting tsunami will emanate from the volatile Cascadia fault. Resilience in this environment rests on people’s ability to mitigate and adapt.
The dynamic geophysical and adaptive social backdrop provides an interesting frame in which to view the region’s linked economy. As in much of the rural West, South Beach has diversified its jobs base over time, yet remains reliant on natural resources (directly and indirectly) for a large portion of its economy. It is also dependent on its civic spirit, relying on residents to actively support community wellbeing.
A number of factors are stressing historic industries and community composition. Some create opportunities; others threaten to undermine foundations of the local economy. While we cannot know what the future holds, it is interesting to consider the sources of change and ponder what they might bring.