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Vermilion park nears reality

Tom Thulen/Submitted photo Trees reflect in a clear Lake Vermilion. About 3,000 acres of land on the lake's shore will become a new Minnesota park after state officials bought the land Tuesday from U.S. Steel.

ST. PAUL -- Don't pitch your tent just yet at Lake Vermilion State Park, and don't even think about driving that motorhome to a campground there, but state officials say activity will pick up this summer now that Minnesota owns the land.

Gov. Tim Pawlenty signed an agreement Tuesday to pay U.S. Steel $18 million for 3,000 acres along Lake Vermilion in northeastern Minnesota. Joining Pawlenty at the state Capitol signing was Vice President John Goodish of U.S. Steel, who handed over the deed to the land.

"This will be a magnet for Minnesotans and others," Pawlenty said, estimating that tens of thousands of visitors will head to the new park annually.

Those visitors will have to wait. Natural Resources Commissioner Mark Holsten said that some public tours will be conducted in the park this summer, and limited trails and primitive camping should be available this fall. Boaters already may explore the lakeshore.

But don't count on a campground to handle recreational vehicles soon. Facilities such as a visitors' center and campground must await completion of a master plan and funds appropriated by the Legislature.

There are no roads into the park's interior and little infrastructure beyond one highway that slices across its edge.

Development of the park could take more than a decade, Pawlenty said, and just what amenities will be provided remains in question. A task force is to make recommendations by year's end.

The state has just $2 million for initial development. Part of the park's opposition came from critics who said that $20 million to $40 million would be needed to develop the park, and that money is not available. Holsten said that development cost is not known, but estimated it could be $30 million.

The Department of Natural Resources' first job is to make sure the new park is safe for visitors. Also, the department is looking for cultural and other historic areas that need to be preserved.

Holsten said Native American artifacts have been found and the department plans to work with Bois Forte Band of Chippewa on preserving them. The commissioner said there is evidence of American Indian use of the area long ago, and more recent European mining activities.

Archeologists and other experts are examining the new parkland.

Pawlenty, who said the park will be one of the most beautiful in the country, first proposed it in 2007.

The governor said there are few lands left, at least of the size of the new park, so it was important to snatch up the property.

Since lake lots and existing homes costs so much, fewer Minnesotans can afford "the up north" lakeside experience, Pawlenty said. With Lake Vermilion park, lake access will remain available to most Minnesotans, he added.

The new park is near the Boundary Waters Canoe Area in Superior National Forest.

The park almost did not happen. The state and the steel company haggled over the price in extended negotiations and U.S. Steel was ready to sell off the land for private development, including home lots.

Goodish said that in the long run U.S. Steel could have made more money selling the land for homes.

The land includes five miles of shoreline. The new park will be administered along with adjoining Soudan Underground Mine State Park, with another five miles of lake front property.

A criticism brought up by Rep. Tom Rukavina, DFL-Virginia, was that Soudan already is on Vermilion and it under used. However, Holsten said the Soudan park is oriented toward the historic underground mine, a different mission than the Vermilion park.

Holsten said he could not estimate how much the park will cost to run; that will be determined by facilities the state provides. However, he said, modern technology should mean the park will be less costly than the state's most expensive one, Itasca, which costs $2.5 million a year to operate, although both should attract about the same number of visitors.

Some Lake Vermilion facts, from the Department of Natural Resources:

-39,271 acres of lake surface.

-368 islands.

-76-foot maximum depth.

-340 miles of shoreline.

-83 percent of shoreline privately owned.

-U.S. Steel owned property 128 years.

-Oldest rocks in park are 2.7 billion years old.

-Largest muskie found in recent sampling was 54.7 inches.

Davis reports for Forum Communications Co., which owns the Daily Globe.

Don Davis
Don Davis has been the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau chief since 2001, covering state government and politics for two dozen newspapers in the state. Don also blogs at Capital Chatter on Areavoices.