DNR looks to add 15,000 WMA acres
Park would cover 2,500 acres and protect nearly 5 miles of shoreline
By Joe AlbertAssociate Editor
Soudan, Minn. - A state park on the shores of Lake Vermilion likely would be among the state's most pristine.
Excited as officials are about the prospects of adding the first major park in 30 years, there's no guarantee it'll get done. That's up to the Legislature, which will be asked next year to approve the proposal and come up with the millions of dollars the land is expected to cost and develop.
Standing on a rocky outcrop before a collection of media representatives and others - with expansive blue water, wooded islands, and a couple of boats in the background - Mark Holsten, DNR commissioner, spoke of his vision for what would be a 2,500-acre park along nearly 5 miles of shoreline. It would abut Soudan Underground Mine State Park to create a 3,700-acre tract with 10 miles of protected shoreline along the lake's eastern side.
Holsten also spoke of reality.
'One year from now, it's either going to be in the hands of the citizens of the state in the development of a state park - for all of us to come up and enjoy this kind of afternoon - or it's going to be developed into houses,' he said. 'That's pretty much the simple choice we have.'
The land currently is owned by U.S. Steel, which is in the process of developing the property into about 150 homes. A little more than a month ago, state officials approached the company and asked it to hold off on actual development of the property. The company gave the state a year to figure out how to make the project happen, including how to fund it.
While Holsten said the state hadn't done its due diligence and wouldn't get into specifics about what it might cost to secure the land and develop a so-called next-generation park - 'I don't think it serves us well to start putting out numbers that none of us can really lock down,' he said - Gov. Tim Pawlenty, a supporter of the proposal, has said the cost would be in the 'tens of millions.'
Funding likely would come from the state's General Fund, bonding, or the Environment and Natural Resources Trust Fund.
Cook DFLer Tom Bakk, who chairs the Taxes Committee in the Senate and whose district includes Vermilion, said he was hopeful, but not optimistic, the Legislature would fund the new park.
'This is going to be a huge challenge for the Legislature,' he said. 'This is no slam dunk.'
Like is happening on many lakes, small cabins on Vermilion are being replaced with large and expensive homes. If homes are built on the site, none of them will sell for less than $1 million, Bakk said.
'The day is coming when regular, working-class people won't be able to use this lake anymore,' he said.
A complication could be that St. Louis County, about 60 percent of which is publicly owned, would have to give up $200 million to $300 million in tax capacity, Bakk said. Local officials have approached him about the project and suggested the state could sell 5 miles of shoreline somewhere else in the county. Holsten said the DNR hasn't had such discussions yet.
'I do think we could potentially talk with the county and identify some other lakeshore somewhere that could be developed to help kind of offset that, and I don't think anybody would know it ever even happened because the state actually owns a lot of lakeshore,' Bakk said.
If a park is developed, it likely would generate more than $500,000 a year in revenue from camping and tours, as well as $8.5 million in spending in the area, said Courtland Nelson, Minnesota State Park director.
The state currently operates 72 state park and recreation areas. State parks attract about 8 million people a year. Officials say the new park could be open in two to three years.
Bakk predicted a state park at Vermilion quickly would become a destination. In the northeast, state parks are five of the top 10 tourist attractions.
'I'll bet money, anybody that wants to bet, that five years out, after this thing is developed, there will be more visitors to this park than there are to the Boundary Waters every year,' he said.
While concrete plans haven't been made, the park could include remote campsites, boat camping, and camper cabins, as well as hiking and biking trails, Holsten said. He also envisions an energy-efficient visitor center, as well as amenities such as wireless Internet.
He said the park should offer such things as a way to attract younger people.
'We want to make this the new standard of what state parks need to be looking at,' Holsten said.
Locals for years have used the property for deer and grouse hunting, and a snowmobile trail also runs through the area, Bakk said. He said those opportunities should remain in place.
While it's often limited in scope, state parks increasingly have been opened to hunting in recent years, Holsten said. The DNR plans to hold public meetings in the area to take input on what should be included at the park.
'There's no reason, on a unit this size, as we look forward, that we can't accommodate recreational opportunities that we traditionally haven't done,' he said.
The park would increase public access to the lake, which includes 40,000 acres of water, 365 islands, and 1,200 miles of shoreline. Officials say state parks lack a presence on lakes such as Vermilion.
'This is a unique opportunity to create a next-generation state park on one of Minnesota's most beautiful and undeveloped lakes,' Pawlenty said in a press release. 'A state park in this location would provide an ‘up north, place at the lake experience,' for all Minnesotans.'