KUKUTALI PRESERVE — For nearly 100 years, a gravel road hugged by boulders has provided access from Snee-Oosh Road to Kiket Island.
That road was built on a beach called a tombolo: a long, sandy mound stretching from the mainland to the island, with intertidal beaches sloping away from it to the north and south.
Now, the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community that manages the Kukutali Preserve in partnership with State Parks plans to remove the gravel road and boulders along its edges to reveal the natural beach.
“There’s natural beach on the bottom there,” Swinomish Environmental Director Todd Mitchell said while standing next to the road. “It’s really just a removal project.”
The goal of the project is to restore the natural functions of 300 feet of the tombolo and a 3.4-acre lagoon northeast of it, according to project documents.
That will allow sediment to move between the lagoon, tombolo and intertidal beaches, and improve habitat for salmon species, including threatened Puget Sound chinook, as well as other wildlife. It will also allow preserve visitors to walk along a beach rather than a road.
The project is expected to be done this summer.
Before the road is removed, volunteers will document driftwood, forage fish eggs, seaweed and algae found in the area.
“We’re basically taking an inventory of what’s present,” said Northwest Straits Foundation Marine Projects Manager Jason Morgan, who is leading the volunteer effort.
About a dozen volunteers began Friday the work of documenting the beaches.
Looking at the beaches to the north and south of the road, some differences are obvious.
Along the beach to the north, massive pieces of driftwood are stacked out several yards from the road. Along the beach to the south, stick-sized driftwood is few and far between.
“There are these big huge things piled up over there and hardly any of these little tiny things over here,” Mitchell said.
Once the project is completed, Mitchell said over time the beaches on both sides of the tombolo are expected to even out, each amassing driftwood and more sandy sediment.
“Hopefully when we get all of this out of here it will be a naturally functioning beach,” he said after showing that the road and boulders stand more than 6 feet tall.
While the change will mean more habitat for fish, it will also create some limitations for those seeking to visit the preserve on foot during high tides.
Mitchell said daytime high tides are anticipated to block access to Kiket Island for 15 minutes to 3 hours a day while the tombolo is under water.
The bulk of those daytime high tides will occur during winter. Mitchell said most summer high tides occur at night, when the preserve is closed.
While sea level rise is projected to inundate the existing road, Mitchell said restoring the tombolo will enable the beach to rebuild itself, potentially keeping pace with increasing sea levels.
“Our hope would be that being a natural feature it would hopefully adjust itself along the way,” he said.
The tribe has been monitoring sediment at the various beaches at the preserve for several years and will continue to monitor how it changes following the tombolo restoration.
Once restoration is completed, the tribe will do two years of volunteer monitoring of forage fish, driftwood, sea grass and algae, and Northwest Straits will seek funding to extend that for a total of five years, Morgan said.
The 101-acre Kukutali Preserve was opened to the public in June 2014 as an addition to Deception Pass State Park.
State Parks and the tribe co-manage the preserve and have worked together on recreation and habitat projects. The preserve now has a parking lot, restroom, day use facilities and about 2 miles of trails.
The $272,000 beach restoration is the latest in the series of projects to receive grant funding. In February, the state Recreation and Conservation Office awarded a $231,000 grant for the project and the tribe will contribute $41,000.