THERE’S ONE UNDISPUTED FACT about the effort to create the first new state park in Minnesota since 1979: The proposed site, located at the southeastern end of Lake Vermilion between Tower and Ely, is one of the most pristine and picturesque pieces of land in the entire state. The parcel encompasses five miles of densely wooded shoreline, from which it’s not uncommon to spot eagles nestled in the trees, and loons, swans, and double-crested cormorants bobbing in the water. Towering pines mix with stolid groups of cedar, spruce, and aspen. Deer, bear, and the full complement of smaller north woods wildlife roam the area, on topography that varies from shallow wetlands to steep rocky drop-offs. ¶ The proposed site boasts other advantages, as well. It would be a relatively easy portage into the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, for one. And because the area was mined during the early 20th century, there are rudimentary roads and electrical lines already in place. ¶ Given the location and natural amenities, it’s little wonder that state officials believe a Lake Vermilion park could be a crown jewel of the state system and a prototype for the future—nothing less than the beginning of a new era in the history of the Department of Natural Resources. “As great as our park system is, a lot of our infrastructure was designed in the ’50s for a 1950s-era user, which is vastly different than the people we have today,” says DNR commissioner Mark Holsten. “Lake Vermilion will give us an opportunity to create that next-generation park, and turn our system into a gateway for new folks to get exposure to the environment.”
But many environmentalists and supporters of state parks fear that a Lake Vermilion park, rather than serving as an attraction, could actually prove a distraction, drawing attention away from a once-great system that has recently fallen into disrepair. “We should not overlook the risk that Lake Vermilion will be developed as a flagship—like Itasca [State Park], which gets hundreds of thousands of visitors,” says Steve Morse, a former legislator who is now executive director of Minnesota Environmental Partnership, a nonprofit coalition of 80 environmental and conservation organizations around the state. “It will be cited as this major accomplishment, while the rest of the park system is collapsing. Our concern is that a couple of high-profile things get done and the public thinks everything is hunky-dory while the great legacy of our parks diminishes.”
Or as Democratic Representative Tom Rukavina, the legislator who lives closest to the proposed park site, bluntly puts it: “Why would the DNR want a new state park when they can’t take care of the old ones?”
The first official notion that there might someday be a Lake Vermilion State Park occurred in July 2007, when Governor Tim Pawlenty announced that U.S. Steel, which owns the site, was giving the state a year “to determine the feasibility and funding of the park.” Getting enough money to purchase the site became the subject of a last-minute, contentious compromise during the 2008 legislative session. In a deal hammered out with the mostly urban leaders of the DFL, the governor agreed not to veto funding for the Central Corridor Light Rail line between Minneapolis and St. Paul. In exchange, the legislature approved $20 million in bonding authority for the “acquisition and development” of the park.
When the session adjourned in mid-May, the conventional wisdom was that the hard part was over—that $20 million would be sufficient for the DNR to reach a purchase agreement with the Pittsburgh-based U.S. Steel. It hasn’t turned out that way. Holsten concedes that “getting the right people in the room has been a challenge,” adding that U.S. Steel has higher priorities. “To them, resolution of that 3,000 acres is probably small in magnitude,” he says. More troubling is that the two sides are still far apart when it comes to settling on purchase price. Though Holsten says he is “not overly worried” about a breakdown in negotiations, he also admits that it might be months before a purchase agreement is hammered out.
It’s also important to note that while everyone may agree on the beauty of the proposed site, not everyone is gung ho about taking more land off the tax rolls in northern Minnesota. Many of the locals who hunt, fish, and work on the Iron Range wonder how much government land is too much. “Almost 65 percent of St. Louis County, the third-largest county in the nation east of the Mississippi, is publicly owned now,” Rukavina points out. He estimates that between 60 and 70 percent of his constituents are against the purchase—some because they enjoy taking advantage of U.S. Steel’s lax policy regarding trespassing for hunting, fishing, and berry-picking, others because of financial considerations: In lieu of selling the land to the state, U.S. Steel has proposed building up to 150 luxury homes on the site, development that would help feed a starved local tax base.
Of course, the locals aren’t the only ones thinking about money. The state’s general-fund balance is threatening to become a tsunami of red ink, with a deficit projected to be more than $1 billion over the next two years. At the same time, the operating budgets for the state parks and trails systems haven’t recovered from the last round of cuts, in 2003, imposed to help solve the state’s then $4.3 billion deficit. From 2002 to 2009, general-fund allocations to state parks were cut by 11.5 percent. According to the Minnesota League of Conservation Voters, the percentage of general-fund monies earmarked for the environment and natural resources today is at its lowest point in 30 years.
When Pawlenty pushed legislators to come up with the money to buy the Lake Vermilion site, he also proposed a bonding allocation—the mechanism used to fund upkeep at Minnesota’s 66 state parks—to cover $10 million for deferred maintenance. The problem: State officials say it will cost $100 million to pay for all the deferred maintenance needed over the next decade (legislators eventually doubled the bonding allocation to $20 million). And while user fees at parks have been raised significantly to mitigate budget cuts, the funding issues have created a vicious cycle: Lack of revenue has caused some parks to reduce their camping seasons and cut popular positions (such as park naturalists), which leads to fewer visitors—and even less revenue.
Many observers believe that a park at Lake Vermilion could counteract the downward spiral. “I think having a Lake Vermilion State Park will create a rising tide that will lift boats for all the parks,” says Tim Farrell, president of the board of directors of the Parks & Trails Council of Minnesota. “There hasn’t been a lot of big news about parks and this one, which has the chance to create a legacy, is certain to create more awareness.”
Park-system advocates are hoping voters will come to their rescue this November, when a statewide constitutional referendum will appear on the ballot. The referendum calls for a three-eighths of a cent increase in the state sales tax for 25 years. The increase would generate an estimated $276 million per year on behalf of cleaner water, outdoor recreation, and a variety of arts and cultural programs.
If the referendum passes, that funding would be helpful in the development of the Lake Vermilion site, if and when it is ever purchased. Holsten estimates that after the state buys the parcel, it will take anywhere from $20 to $30 million to “achieve full development” of the park.
But how that development takes place, at Lake Vermilion and at other state parks, promises to be yet another source of debate. Holsten says he wants Lake Vermilion State Park to be “a place people come to in winter as well as summer, and that will mean snowmobiles and cross-country skiing. For infrastructure, we hope to have more opportunities for group camping. We might have more camper-cabins, and different kinds of rustic campsites, with remote access by hiking or boating.” Another proposal that has already generated some controversy is to have more Wi-Fi and Internet connectivity. “We’re not looking to set up an ESPN Zone or video content,” says Holsten. “But we do live in a digital age.”
“There certainly needs to be a debate about how we develop,” says Democratic Representative Jean Wagenius, of Minneapolis, who chairs the environment and natural resources finance division committee. “The commissioner is fond of saying we have to change our parks because kids want to text message and that’s why attendance is down. I disagree. We have underfunded the upkeep and let go the conservation officers who come and talk to folks, and that’s the kind of thing families want.”
In the end, the crux of all these debates—buy the Lake Vermilion site or not; develop it quickly or slowly; Wi-Fi or trails—comes down to money, or, more precisely, a lack of money during a rare moment in the state’s history. Anyone who sets foot on the Lake Vermilion site, or even eyes it from afar, can’t help but be attracted to the idea of it becoming a part of our heritage. “The site up there is simply spectacular,” says the Parks & Trails Council’s Farrell. “Clearly, we have budget challenges. But look ahead 50 years from now. Who remembers what the budget was like when the Boundary Waters or Itasca was created?
Britt Robson is a Minneapolis-based freelance writer.