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Plotting a new state park on Lake Vermilion

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Park manager Jim Essig
Jim Essig, Soudan Underground Mine State Park manager, talks about the landscape around Lake Vermilion Wednesday afternoon near Soudan, Minn. Essig was talking in what will be part of the state park that is being developed.
MPR Photo/Derek Montgomery

On a high ridge overlooking Lake Vermilion is a picture-postcard view of northern Minnesota.  

There's an expanse of water reflecting the blue sky, a scattering of graceful islands, and a few homes and cabins nestled in the woods.

The pristine setting is emblematic of the challenges state planners face in preparing Minnesota's first new state park in 30 years.

Lake Vermilion State Park is a near-wilderness area on a lake that's popular with anglers and jet-skiers. Some visitors will want to limit development, but local folks want attractions that will help create jobs.

"This view is absolutely stunning, but we wouldn't want to put a lodge up here and block this view or harm these resources," said Erika Rivers, a planner with state Department of Natural Resources. "We need to find ways where people can see these beautiful banded iron formations, visit this view and contemplate its beauty, but still protect it in such a way that future generations will also be able to enjoy it.  So it's a pretty delicate balancing act that we're walking right now."

The DNR is determined to create a place where people can have fun, without ruining the place, Rivers said. 

Biologists are exploring the bogs and creeks and north-facing slopes -- microclimates that might be the homes of rare plants and animals. They've learned a lot in the last 30 years about how natural systems work, and they'll put that knowledge to work protecting fragile ecosystems and rare species.

Nature starts here with bedrock two-and-a-half billion years old. The layers are twisted and buckled into blue and brown ribbons of rock that look like abstract art.     

See a slideshow of the new Lake Vermilion State Park.

Jim Essig, manager of the Soudan Underground Mine State Park just west of Lake Vermilion, points out a mix of hematite, jasper and magnetite ores.

Gray-green lichens soften the rock face.  They're the pioneers that over time turn rock into soil.

"There's places you can tromp around back here, there's lichens and mosses that'll come in that'll actually be a foot thick, and then you'll start seeing other plants that'll slowly grow in," Essig said.

Asst. park manager Guy Lunz
Guy Lunz, assistant park manager at Soudan Underground Mine State Park, talks about the Lake Vermilion shoreline Wednesday afternoon while on Lake Vermilion.
MPR Photo/Derek Montgomery

A blueberry bush grows right out of the rock --- good picking that Essig calls "a local secret." 

The air is filled with the pungent scent of pines and balsams, and the sweet perfume of raspberries and bracken ferns.

The question for planners is how the peaceful environment will change when people come. For them, the balancing act is determining where to put roads and trails, campgrounds and a visitor center -- while satisfying often conflicting interests.

Some people will want to come to the state park and feel close to the wilderness -- the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness is just a portage or two away -- but others will want to jet-ski or snowmobile.  

Rivers said the first goal is to protect the natural resources.   That could involve concentrating development in one area to minimize its effect on resources, or designing several small areas that are lightly developed.

The DNR has recruited an advisory committee that includes local resort owners, motorized and non-motorized recreation groups and other interests. They'll come up with recommendations to be presented to the public this fall.

Island in Lake Vermilion
There are dozens of small islands that are managed by the Minnesota DNR for the Bureau of Land Management. Many of the islands like this one are less than an acre and hold little possibility of development. Some have room for just a tree or two.
MPR Photo/Derek Montgomery

Participants say their one meeting so far was promising and that they're all committed to protecting the special quality of the place.

They're looking for ways to separate quiet uses from noisy ones. The high ridge just south of the lake could be an effective sound barrier.  

They're also thinking of building primitive campsites for tents near the lake, with trails to carry canoes to the water.  Pop-up trailers and RVs would park in different campgrounds.

Links to existing long-distance biking and snowmobiling trails could bring people into the park. One idea is to devote some winter trails to dog-sledding. Planners want to make the park a destination year-round.

Another issue is where to put the visitor center. It could go in a nearby town, where it might get more traffic.  

Likely amenities include a boat launch, a beach, and a fishing dock.  Planners want to make the water -- and the pleasures of fishing -- accessible to people without boats.  

Hunting could be allowed to control the deer population. 

Another big question is how to attract younger people to the park. Essig says geocaching is already popular at Soudan State Park, and follows a recognizable pattern:  

"You've got a dad walking behind, kid in front, teenager's got the GPS unit, dad's walking behind with an old compass, camera, and his field guide, and he's going 'I got my boy in the woods!' " Essig said.

The potential for using technology seems endless:  wireless internet connections in the campgrounds,  iPhone apps to learn the about the constellations in the night sky, other gadgets that haven't even been invented yet. The DNR wants to welcome them to attract a new generation of campers.

The new state park will be on land that is rich with history -- not just the geologic past underfoot, but the heroic work of underground iron miners. Preceding them were foolhardy souls who succumbed to a brief gold rush.  Before them came fur traders and voyageurs.

The DNR plans to work with the nearby Bois Forte Anishinabe or Ojibwe Indian band to interpret the history and culture of early inhabitants.

Rose Berens of the Bois Forte Heritage Museum
Rose Berens, Executive Director of the Bois Forte Heritage Museum, talks about the importance of Lake Vermilion to the Bois Forte Band of Chippewa Wednesday afternoon near Fortune Bay Casino near Tower, Minn.
MPR Photo/Derek Montgomery

"They fished, they hunted, they gathered birch bark, they picked berries, made maple sugar," said Rose Berens director of the Bois Forte Heritage Museum. "So the whole area has been utilized for time out of mind you might say by the Bois Forte band."

Berens said the best way to learn about Ojibwe culture is to visit the Heritage Museum. Those with a canoe or small motor boat can pull up to the museum from the lake.

Right now, the best way to experience the park is from the lake.  

Visitors will see Raspberry Island,  one of nearly 400 islands in the lake, Minnesota's fifth-largest.

Many of the islands have eagle nests and lots of loons, said Guy Lunz, assistant manager of the adjacent Soudan State Park.

Together, the two parks have 10 miles of shoreline.  

Some local folks question whether the DNR can deliver on the kind of development that will provide jobs. But they look forward to using the land again. In the last few years it's been closed to the public as the former owner, U.S. Steel, planned to sell off lots for nearly 200 big lake homes.

Lunz said the park will bring business to fishing guides and resorts that rent out boats. Entrepreneurs may offer tours.

"They actually deliver mail on this lake," Lunz said.  "There's only a few in the country left, and they have tours. You can ride along on the mail boat. That's very popular, but that's only a couple people a day, and I think this is going to bring so many people that the mail boat tour won't be able to handle them."

The only public access to the state park at the moment is an old cabin site with a wooden dock and boathouse.  

Tall pine trees shed their needles to make a soft carpet on the ground.

There are picnic tables and a fire pit, and the foundation for a classic wooden state park sign -- welcoming boaters to the land.

The DNR says it will have some hiking trails ready this summer, and maybe some cross-country ski trails by winter.