Skagit County already boasts the state’s most popular state park, a wealth of natural resources and rich Native American history and culture. Those treasured features have collided in the Kukutali Preserve, which has become the nation’s first park land where state and tribal control overlaps.

“It’s one of the few places in the world where two governments own the same piece of land and don’t fight over it,” Deception Pass State Park manager Jack Hartt said.

It opened to the public Monday as a pedestrian-only addition to Deception Pass State Park and the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community reservation, four years after state parks and the Swinomish purchased the land together.

It was a special day for many state parks employees and Swinomish tribal members who labored over a co-management plan for years.

A group of those who were influential in the process came together at the preserve before its official public opening to celebrate their partnership.

“It is a great day. It is a great day because we like to make history,” said Brian Cladoosby, Swinomish Tribal Chairman and president of the National Congress of American Indians. ” … It is a real milestone to be able to say that the Swinomish and the state will have the first state park, co-managed.”

State Parks Director Don Hoch said Kukutali will serve as a model for future partnerships and already served as a “catalyst” for a new state parks partnership program.

But getting there wasn’t easy.

Now retired Swinomish Tribal Planning Director Charlie O’Hara and retired state Parks Assistant Director Larry Fairleigh took part in the opening ceremony. The two were involved in early negotiations.

“We spent a lot of time talking about how this was never going to work,” O’Hara said.

The pair helped the state and tribe narrowly avoid litigation over the land.

State Parks and Recreation Commission Chair Lucinda (Cindy) Whaley also remembers those darker days and shared the excitement Monday, travelling from Spokane to take part in the opening ceremony.

“This will be a landmark for all Washingtonians,” she said.

Cladoosby and Whaley symbolically planted a vine maple together during the ceremony and the Swinomish Canoe Family performed a blessing.

They chose the “good morning song” to welcome the new beginning for Kiket Island and the Kukutali Preserve, Aurelia Washington said.

“It’s an honor to be here today and see the work that’s been done between our people and the park,” she said.

While the struggle of those who fought to reach agreement may be forgotten, that is not the point, Cladoosby said.

“It’s about what our kids and grandkids are going to be able to enjoy and share here,” he said.

Up until Monday, the pristine landscape of Kiket and Flagstaff Islands — which together form the preserve in Similk Bay — were only accessible to the public through guided tours.

The preserve is now equipped with a seven spot parking lot, bike rack and portable toilet off of Snee-Oosh Road. Three restored trails lead from one end of the Kiket Island to Flagstaff Island, where two interpretive signs are planned for installation this summer.

Flagstaff and the surrounding estuary remain off limits to the public in an effort to protect the fragile habitat found there, Hartt said.

The parking lot was also intentionally kept small in an effort to “keep impact to the park limited, and the area more pristine,” Todd Mitchell of the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community said.

Fidalgo Island resident Dave Wenning made his way to the preserve Tuesday, equipped with his camera and eager to capture the birds and wildflowers that flourish on the nearly untouched island.

“When I heard it was open to the public I just had to come,” he said.

Wenning visited the preserve via guided tours three times previously.

“This is like the Pacific Northwest primeval in one piece,” he said.

— Reporter Kimberly Cauvel: 360-416-2199, kcauvel@skagitpublishing.com, Twitter: @Kimberly_SVH, facebook.com/bykimberlycauvel

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