State park along Lake Vermilion looks unlikely

Map of Lake Vermilion
This map shows the outline of the proposed Lake Vermilion state park, in black. The existing Soudan Mine State Park is outlined in green.
Map courtesy of the Minnesota DNR

In 2007, Gov. Tim Pawlenty announced his initiative to buy 2,500 acres of land along Lake Vermilion in northeastern Minnesota. At the time, he said securing the land would make the park one of the nicest parks in the nation.

"We hope through this proposal that we'll be able to give everyone in Minnesota and up at the lake or up north experience through this next state park," Pawlenty said.

Pawlenty expressed confidence that the state would purchase the land from owner U.S. Steel, saying at one point that the deal won't fall apart.

But now, Pawlenty appears to have all but given up on the park.

"It's an unfortunate development, but we've done all we can," he said.

Pawlenty said the state and U.S. Steel couldn't come up with a sale price for the land. U.S. Steel reportedly assessed the property at $20 million. The state assesment is $14 million. Pawlenty said state law prohibits offering more than 12 percent the appraised value of the land.

"If the Legislature will allow some additional authority, we might be able to close the deal," he said. "But in fairness to the Legislature and to the appraisal process, I don't think it's responsible to pay more than the fair market value for the property."

Pawlenty made his comments just hours before the St. Louis County Board of Commissioners gave tentative approval to a plan allowing U.S. Steel to develop 1,400 acres of property into 148 lots, build a wastewater treatment plant, along with roads and boat launches. U.S. Steel announced a few weeks ago that it was ending talks with the state and moving forward with the development plan.

"It's an unfortunate development, but we've done all we can."

St. Louis County Commissioner Mike Forsman said the eight-member board unanimously backed the new plan. He said when fully developed, the land will generate $1 million a year in property taxes. Forsman said he initially supported turning the land into a park, but changed his mind when he realized that the state isn't maintaining its existing park land.

"The state has basically cut funding to all of the parks in the state of Minnesota yet at the same time, the governor was proposing Pawlenty's Paradise Park and in my mind that was not a reality," Forsman said.

Forsman said the board's actions won't prohibit U.S. Steel from selling the land to the state. It would just give the company the approval to develop the property.

One state lawmaker isn't too disappointed that the land could be developed.

"Am I thrilled that it's going to be developed? Yes. Am I thrilled that it's not going to be a state park? Not particularly. It's a tough decision to make," said DFL Representative David Dill.

Dill represents the Lake Vermilion area. In 2008, Dill argued against any attempts to turn the land into a state park. Dill pointed out that his region is home to Soudan Underground Mine State Park and other recreation areas.

"There are 11 state parks in my legislative district already," Dill said. "There's the Boundary Waters Canoe Area and there's Voyageur's National Park. There are millions upon millions of acres of public land already. I would rather see public land in Hennepin County frankly."

Dill said he's not 100 percent confident that the park proposal is completely off the table. He suggested that U.S. Steel and Governor Pawlenty may be using their public statements to see whether the other party is willing to move off of their last offer. Other lawmakers say state officials could be more inclined to negotiate once the state's budget problems are addressed.

The loss of the park concerns Brett Feldman with the Parks and Trails Council of Minnesota. He said the Vermilion Park plan would be a crown jewel in the state's park system.

"We believe it would be a tremendous loss for the people of Minnesota if it became housing," Feldman said. "If given the choice between a new park or a luxury home development on one of the state's most spectacular lakes, we'll take the park every single time."

Feldman said the Parks and Trails Council is still hoping that the state can negotiate a deal to secure the park. St. Louis County Commissioner Forsman said there is no timeline on the development of the Lake Vermilion property. An official with U.S. Steel declined to comment beyond saying they're disappointed negotiations with the state have ended.