Locals praise, and question, Lake Vermilion state park proposal

Tim Tomsich has been on the town board of Breitung Township for 28 years. All that time he's been trying to protect Lake Vermilion from overdevelopment.

"She's a beautiful lake, and she's probably breathing a sigh of relief right now," Tomsich says.

He's been worried about U.S. Steel's plans to divide the land into lots and sell it off for expensive homes and cabins.

Tomsich says a state park is a far better use of the unspoiled lakeshore. He's even willing to forego the tax revenues those properties would generate.

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"When you take a look at the long term implications of people visiting the area, getting an appreciation for the cabin experience up in northern Minnesota and what that brings, I think that's going to add a lot more value," Tomsich says. "Actually it's going to help the lake preserve its current nature, which is only going to help more people come to the area."

This isn't just any piece of land. It's adjacent to the existing Soudan Underground Mine State Park. And it's spectacular scenery, nearly as remote and rugged as the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness -- full of rocky cliffs and pine trees and crisp clean water.

Courtland Nelson is in charge of state parks at the DNR. He says he envisions a family-friendly park, with lots of access to the lake and its picturesque islands.

"We will be looking at some boat-in campsites that would be similar in look to the Boundary Waters area," he says. "We'll look at camper-cabins or yurts that would be dispersed along a trail system."

He says there should be plenty of trails -- some motorized, some not. He predicts those amenities would attract about 300,000 people every year.

He says it would cost something like $50 million to buy the land and build the facilities.

"She's a beautiful lake, and she's probably breathing a sigh of relief right now."

And where would that money come from? Gov. Pawlenty is pushing the project. He was on Lake Vermilion for a fishing opener and he's vacationed in the area at other times. But he's a Republican who's usually more comfortable saving money than spending it.

DFL Sen. Tom Bakk, who represents the area, says he likes the project but he's "not overly optimistic" it will happen.

Bakk says it'll take bipartisan support to find the money -- not just to buy the land but to turn it into a park that will attract enough people to make a difference in the local economy.

"To make sure that we've got the roads necessary, the campsites in place, the camper-cabins in place, an interpretive center built, remote campsites out on the lake, a marina," Bakk says. "I want to build a state park. I just don't want to buy a bunch of private land, take it off the tax rolls, and have it sit there."

Bakk says money could come from the environmental trust fund, from bonding, or from one-time money available after Gov. Pawlenty vetoed last session's bonding bill.

St. Louis County Commissioner Keith Nelson says he'll support the new park idea -- on one condition. He says more than 60 percent of the land in the county is government-owned, so the county misses out on tax revenue.

"Our only request back to the DNR, which is a very reasonable request, is that they would sell other properties within St. Louis County," he says. "Waterfront properties that they hold presently, that would be of equal value to this new proposed park." If other lakefront land were developed, Nelson says the county could do without taxes on new cabins on Lake Vermilion.

For its part, U.S. Steel insists it's not putting its development plans on hold. The company will try to get approval from St. Louis County to plat 150 lots, each of them three to five acres.

The DNR's Courtland Nelson says a lot of things have to fall in place before the park can become a reality.

"Negotiations have to go relatively smoothly, based on an appraisal process that is valued by both sides, and then into the legislative hopper based on a proposal made by Governor Pawlenty and massaged by all those who participate. That's a lot to get done by July 1," he says.

It may be a little early for Lake Vermilion to breathe a sigh of relief.