By BRIAN BAKST, Associated Press
SOUDAN, Minn. (AP) -- With its thick forest of towering pines, sweeping views from overlooks and alluring islands, Lake Vermilion State Park has all the ingredients of an appealing getaway destination. What's lacking are visitors.
Five years after state leaders pitched the public on an "up-north experience" open to all, the newest Minnesota state park is gradually taking shape. If all goes as planned, campers could be welcomed in a year or so from now. But that's a big if.
It's been a slow-go since 2008, when Minnesota lawmakers agreed to buy Iron Range land owned by U.S. Steel Corp. to keep it from being sold piecemeal for pricey vacation retreats. There was apprehension at first among locals who worried it would erode the tax base, concerns that were addressed by special state allowances. Now neighbors are itching for the state park to fully open.
"Another $20 million isn't going to show up on the doorstep overnight, but people are anxious to see the development," said Breitung Township Supervisor Tim Tomsich, who had input on the Department of Natural Resources' master plan for the park a few years ago.
As park manager Jim Essig rumbled his four-wheel drive vehicle along a narrow path in the heart of the park's 3,000 acres, he admitted his own anxiousness for hikers and campers to explore the rustic beauty. But he doesn't want to rush things.
"This is the first new state park developed in over 30 years," Essig said. "We're going to make sure we do it right."
That means having geologists, archaeologists and biologists take inventory of sensitive areas and native species to prevent doing irreparable damage. Planners intend to erect a field of solar panels for electricity to power park buildings and campsite hookups. They will turn gravel and other aggregate from a corner of the park into asphalt for access roads, trails and parking lots. They're also sorting out how to make Vermilion a next-generation park with emerging technologies and Internet connectivity attractive to younger visitors without offending purists.
Some $30 million has been consumed by the land acquisition, the picnic area and boat docks that went in this summer and the main roadway coming this fall. A welcome center and waterfront visitors lodge are on tap when more financing comes through. The park might not reach its full potential for another six or eight years, officials say.
The legislative campaign for park dollars could be tough. A preliminary DNR request for $25 million for construction of campsites, sanitation buildings, cabins, an adventure area and other amenities faces stiff competition from a pool of $3 billion in public works requests by other state agencies and local governments for everything from prison upgrades to zoo exhibits.
And a backlog of preservation needs at the state's other 75 parks and recreation areas are sure to inspire parochial calls from legislators to fund repairs in their areas, too. Kent Lokkesmoe, the DNR's director of capital investment, said a comprehensive assessment of maintenance projects for buildings, trails and other infrastructure across the state park system is still being assembled, but he expects the tally to exceed $25 million.
There is also political intrigue. Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton has avoided recommending Vermilion park money the past three years because he worries about the appearance of a conflict of interest given family land holdings on lake. The Dayton vacation estate, which is across the vast lake from the park, is owned by his father and uncles. It has been placed into a land trust and will be turned over to the state in 2030, he said.
"Because of my family's longstanding and continuing ties to Lake Vermillion, I have recused myself from all decisions and actions on any matters affecting the lake," Dayton told The Associated Press in a written statement, adding that his unwillingness to embrace an advocacy role shouldn't be construed as disapproval of the park project.
Proximity hasn't stopped another top lawmaker from pushing for park money. Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, lives on a lake lot and has since boyhood, when his father ran the Lutheran Bible camp on one of Vermilion's many bays. Bakk said his advocacy of the project is sure to make it a bargaining chip for others, but his local connection gives him a special understanding of the park's significance on a prized lake that has seen a spurt in million-dollar vacation cabins, big boats and traffic.
When the new park is combined with the neighboring and jointly managed Soudan Underground Mine State Park, the state now controls 4,000 contiguous acres of pristine land and 10 miles of shoreline along Lake Vermilion.
"The opportunity for people of modest means to enjoy the lake has to be more than the public boat landing," Bakk said. "This park will provide that for people who can't afford to have a cabin on what is clearly one of Minnesota's most beautiful lakes."