We own Lake Vermilion land, but now what?

Photos courtesy: Minnesota Department of Natural Resources

In a land where cabin buyers lust after 100 feet of shoreline, the state of Minnesota just cut a huge deal: a 3,000-acre parcel in northern Minnesota that features five miles of Lake Vermilion shoreline.

Negotiations with US Steel took years. The $18 million deal that Gov. Tim Pawlenty and the company finalized Tuesday was by no means a forgone conclusion. In fact, as the Duluth News Tribune reported, a fair number of people -- including some St. Louis County officials -- would have rather seen the lakefront property go on the tax rolls as luxury homes and resorts.

More hard work lies ahead before Lake Vermilion State Park becomes a jewel of the state park system. During the next few years, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources must build trails, interpretive centers, parking lots, campsites, cabins, roads and maintenance buildings.

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Chances are tensions will surface between providing adequate facilities for recreational use and maintaining the land's natural beauty and wildlife. If you've ever gotten shut out while trying to reserve an overnight spot at one of the more popular state parks, you'll understand the pressure that could build to provide plenty of campsites.

Another issue is providing for the interests of the locals. Residents in Soudan and Breitung Township currently enjoy public access at Stuntz Bay to the lake and a collection of historic boathouses. The location is a tempting choice to develop as a main access point to the lake, but it will be a delicate task to accommodate the needs of local residents and the influx of new users.

American Indians have a stake, too. Archeologists have found evidence of American Indian settlements in the area dating back thousands of years -- long before French explorers and traders arrived in the area in the 1600s. The state plans to work with the Bois Forte Band of Chippewa to identify sites within the property that pre-date the arrival of Europeans.

No history of the Lake Vermilion is complete without explaining the Nelson Act of 1889, which stripped Minnesota tribes of their reservation lands. But as the ongoing controversy over dealing with American Indian history at Fort Snelling shows, it's a tough job to do justice to the heritage and suffering of American Indians while celebrating and documenting the achievements of Minnesota's white settlers and leaders.

Development outside the park poses challenges as well. Highway 169, the main road into the new state park, will need work. MnDOT says the existing highway can handle more traffic, but not as much the state park people say will be coming once the park is fully developed.

State and local officials have been trying to tackle these issues in advance. In 2007, a task force that included local representatives, park officials, tourism industry representatives and park advocates dug into the issues and laid out a consensus vision.

The panel, in a January 2008 report, said a guiding principle should be to preserve the shoreline and the land's natural ecosystem. Campsites, boat launches and roads should be put in with an eye toward minimizing their impact, the report states.

Exactly how all that plays out won't be known for years. Some basic trails and facilities for day use will go in this spring. Cabins, campsites and interpretive centers are at least several years away.

Map courtesy: Minnesota Department of Natural Resources