Beneath the emerald green moss and rich soil of Madrona Point lie the bodies of the island’s earliest natives.
The remains of Lummi Indians and mixed blood settlers have been buried at the point for centuries. But two decades ago it was in danger of becoming home to 80 condominiums. Feb. 17 marks the 20th anniversary of the historic preservation of an island treasure.
“It was an amazing success story, but it was also contentious,” said Peter Fisher, a citizen who led the fight to save Madrona Point.
The saga began in 1887, when a dispute over ownership of the burial ground resulted in a lawsuit brought by a group of mixed blood Indians who argued that the Trustees of the Cemetery Association had no right to sell the land. They won the initial case, but the State Supreme Court later ruled in favor of the trustees. The 30-acre land was sold to the Harrison family in 1890. In 1967, Seattle businessman Norton Clapp purchased the property, and in the mid-1980s he announced his plan to build a condo development. Clapp also owned most of Turtleback Mountain.
When word reached the Orcas community, a grassroots effort to save the point was quickly launched. The project took on a life of its own, with support from the county, the Church Council of Greater Seattle, and eventually Congress, which negotiated with Clapp to purchase the property for $2.2 million. It was then turned over to the Lummi Nation.
“The good news is, we got it preserved,” Fisher said. “The bad news is the situation we are in now.”
In a memorandum of understanding signed by the Lummi Nation and San Juan County in 1989, the Lummis agreed to “manage the property as an open space, natural area and forest, open to individuals and groups for walking and educational purposes” with permission of the tribe.
In 2007, after 17 years of public access, the Lummis closed off the point to visitors, citing disrespect to the land. According to Fisher, beer bottles and trash dotted the landscape, illegal campfires were left burning, and dog walkers did not obey the “no dogs allowed” signs.
“Madrona Point was not being managed,” he said.
Fisher feels the burden of responsibility lies with both the county and the Lummi Nation.
“Madrona Point is suffering. That’s the real issue here,” he said. “The agreement is not being honored. And that’s not going away.”
There hasn’t been a management plan in place since ownership was transferred. Fisher says there are two factions in the tribe: those who want to allow shared use, and those who are strongly against it.
“In 1993, the Lummis crafted a management plan with controlled access for others included,” Fisher said. “But then the process just suddenly stopped. I’ve been trying for 15 years to get that management plan going.”
Fisher’s most recent effort is the non-profit Madrona Circle, a group of islanders who are hoping to mend the chasm between the county and the Lummis.
“There are so many people who care about Madrona Point. We can raise the money and we have the time to implement a management plan,” he said. “I hope we can recreate the power we had in the 1980s. We want to create ongoing funding for a caretaker’s cabin and cross-cultural center, which is part of their management plan. Their vision is fabulous.”
County council chair Richard Fralick says the county does not have any immediate plans to address the situation.
The Lummi Nation did not return phone calls to the Islands’ Sounder.
But Fisher is hopeful a resolution can be reached.
“We share a love of this land and our spiritual history,” Fisher said. “We need to reawaken that.”