Proposal for Lake Vermilion State Park

Minnesota Department of Natural Resources Podcasts
Proposal for Lake Vermilion State Park .mp3 (15.7Mb) 7/17/07

Listen to other DNR Podcasts

Governor Tim Pawlenty:

We have a very positive and exciting announcement for Minnesota and outdoors and our citizens, but before we get to that let me announce the presence of some of our distinguished guests and some of the presenters today. First of all, we have our DNR Commissioner Mark Holsten who's with us, you'll hear from him momentarily, Deputy Commissioner Laurie Martinson, who is the second in command at the DNR, a longtime champion and steward of our great resources and parks in Minnesota, the Director of Parks at the DNR, Courtland Nelson. We also have with us Senator Gen Olson, member of the Governor's Conservation Legacy Council. Some of you will recall we had a group that studied kind of reformatting and reforming and changing our conservation organizational structure in Minnesota; came out with a great report a few months ago and Senator Olson was part of that. Tim Ferrell, from the Parks and Trails Council, the President is here. Tim, thank you for being here on short notice, we appreciate that. Susan Schmidt for the Trust for Public Land, Susan – where is she in the back – thank you Susan for coming today, we appreciate it. Peggy Ladner from the Nature Conservancy. Peggy, thank you as well. And many others who, if they're not here physically, I know are excited and feel positive about this. Senator Bakk and Representative Dill and others have been in the loop on these discussions and I think are looking forward to making progress on this great initiative that we have.

I want to just start out by saying, for those of you who are not familiar with Lake Vermilion, it's a approximately 40-mile long lake in northern Minnesota. Part of it overlaps with the Boundary Waters Canoe Area and part of it is in or near the Superior National Forest. National Geographic Magazine some years ago said it was one of the ten most beautiful lakes in the entire nation. It is truly a Minnesota treasure and one that we should and do value as a great state. But as with all lakes in Minnesota of course there's increasing pressure for development and use on them and we have an extraordinary opportunity that's before us to create the first new major state park in approximately 30 years in Minnesota and we intend to seize that opportunity and as I'll describe in just a moment the parcel that you'll see is a very large and very wonderfully located parcel and is going to be an extremely terrific location for a state park.

A couple of quick things by way of background information. Minnesota, of course, is defined in part by our great outdoors and our natural resources. People often comment when asked about what they like most about our state, they often mention something related to the lakes or streams or the outdoors or recreational opportunities and of course our state park system is a huge part of that. It's unfortunate that we haven't had a new state park in so many years, but I think this will make up for some lost time given the size and beauty of this particular parcel.

Minnesota ranks number 10 in the nation in the number of state parks that we have in our state, which is great, but we rank 8th in the acreage of state parks that's available compared to all the other states. I think that's a pretty impressive statistic in light of Minnesota's relatively small or medium sized population and I think it reflects a good commitment historically and to present to the outdoors in Minnesota.

Today we're pleased to announce an idea and proposal for a next-generation state park in the location that we'll describe on Lake Vermilion. Minnesota has, like I said, over 10,000 lakes but very few are of the beauty, size of Lake Vermilion. We appreciate them all, but this one in particular is just incredible, it's compelling in terms of its beauty and esthetics and also it's history. The parcel in question is about 2,500 acres and there's also about 5 miles of undeveloped lakeshore that will be part of this plan as it goes forward. Lake Vermilion, for those of you who don't know, overall is about, like I said, 40 miles long, but it has 40,000 surface acres, people through this park will be able to access or view 365 islands, 1,200 miles of overall shoreline, of course adjacent to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area. Interestingly the site is also located next to an existing park site that the DNR manages and operates at the Soudan Underground Mine and related lands and parcels around the mine. So when you put that existing park together plus this one, there will be over 10 miles of undeveloped shoreline and over 3,700 acres of state park on a combined basis. So we hope through this proposal that we'll be able to give everyone in Minnesota an "up at the lake" or "up north" experience through this new state park. It's going to be state of the art, it's going to be next generation and we're very, very pleased to be advancing this concept.

I also just quickly want to thank USX or US Steel. They're the owners of this parcel. They had plans to develop it with residential homes and private development for the most part, particularly the part closest to the lake. We approached them and asked them to consider putting those proposals on hold and give us a chance to negotiate with them and to purchase the land. They were pretty far down the road with those development proposals and they were kind enough to say they would be willing to give us a window opportunity to negotiate and consummate the purchase of this land for park purposes. Our general understanding with them is they'll give us up to 12 months to finalize this goal and these arrangements. In the meantime they will continue to keep their development plans on a parallel track. They won't implement them but they'll keep them on a parallel track in case, we certainly don't plan on this, but in case our plans fall through, which they won't. We want to move forward with this and we will do so aggressively.

We're also going to be asking the legislature for help with this proposal and this could come in a variety of forms. It could come through the bonding bill, it could come through general fund appropriations, or it might even come through some of the proceeds of the Environmental Trust Fund. We think this would be an appropriate, a potential appropriate use, for that using some of those funds. And we'll be working with legislators, local leaders, and others to make sure that their input is received and that we're able to move forward on a consensus and hopefully positive basis with all concerned.

Lastly, this proposal is to acquire the parcel and then of course there will be a very exhaustive and comprehensive process by which the DNR, most assuredly lead by Courtland among others as well, will go through town hall meetings, stakeholder meetings, receiving input about what people would like to see in a next-generation state park in Minnesota, and how it should be laid out, some of the uses and features and promotions of it, and it's going to be terrific, but he will do a great job as he always does in developing the concept for the park. And the park, as you can see on this map, and Mark and others will point it out to you, has not just the, I think it's 4.9 linear miles if you include all the ins and outs of the bays, I think it's actually closer to 10, the total would be, then of course off the lake there's a significant amount of land available for other uses as well. So this is going to be a very large, very beautiful park and it's also going to give every Minnesotan a chance to go out and enjoy an "up north, at the lake" experience. So we're keeping access open to one of our great Minnesota treasures.

With that I'll turn it over to Commissioner Holsten who will make some comments about this. And I want to thank him for his leadership and vision on this project. And then he'll introduce a few other folks and then we'll take your questions. Commissioner Holsten.

Commissioner Holsten:

Thank you Governor and everyone. Thanks for coming here today on this very special announcement that has been presented to us, this opportunity that we have before us. What you see here is an opportunity that about 5 weeks ago we approached United States Steel who has been on a 3-year development plan. They have been in the process for roughly 3 years of sorting out and trying to determine how they were going to develop this 5 miles of frontage on Lake Vermilion. We interrupted that process and asked if they would be willing to step aside for a moment for a time being and seeing if we could come to terms and secure the resources necessary to acquire this parcel. So we have a very definitive window, but a very exciting window, and one that we will be working very feverishly over the next several months, throughout this year to make this a reality for all Minnesotans.

In your packets you have some other materials that we can go through and talk about later and I have a couple other slides. But of note I want to make sure you hear from a couple key individuals. One, Courtland Nelson, who is the Director of our State Parks system here in Minnesota. He will be heading up our development plans and working with the local communities and trying to sort out and figure out how and what this park is going to look like. Working with our partners of Parks and Trails Council, Nature Conservancy, and Trust for Public Land and likely many others throughout the State of Minnesota and you'll hear from Courtland. Marty Vadis, who is the Director of our Lands and Minerals, will be heading up our acquisition team and he will be doing the intimate negotiations with United States Steel and figuring out exactly what the value is and determining what that purchase price will ultimately be. And then we will be moving forward with our legislative and local partners to secure the resources necessary to make this a reality both on the acquisition and the development side. When you see the park of what we're talking about, I know for some of you it's very difficult to see, but the green outline over here is the existing state park of Soudan Underground Mine and we have very limited resources there now, but as you see that black area and encompassing 2,500 new acres creating roughly a 3,700 acre park and 10 miles of undeveloped shoreline on one of our most beautiful lakes here in the State of Minnesota.

When you look across Minnesota and you look at our state parks system, it is very expansive and it is spread throughout the State of Minnesota, but when look at our significant lakes you don't see a significant state presence. This will be that presence and that opportunity for future generations of Minnesota to be able to recreate and go to the lake and have that experience. So we are very excited for this opportunity and look forward to answering your questions and many other people's questions in the upcoming weeks and months as we move forward with this. So, thank you.

Courtland Nelson:

Good afternoon everybody. An exciting time for somebody in my profession today as you can well imagine. This is a great opportunity for us and our partners to evaluate this wonderful opportunity that has been supported by the Governor and really thought through by Commissioner Holsten. As has been mentioned a couple of times, we are very excited about the potential of this type of park. A major investment in that part of the world is a very rare opportunity. We have been encouraged by the Governor to look at new populations, new user groups, to examine the way that we provide services, the way that we build our facilities and to see if there are some things that we can do either design-wise to make them more attractive or more useable or to create some new opportunities.

Another part of this that was also referred to is the combination of working with Soudan. Now, at Soudan, I assume many of you have been down in the shaft and examined that wonderful mining history, I know the Governor was there a couple of weeks ago with his family, and we have a great story to tell there and I'm thinking if we have a few hundred thousand folks who are visiting Lake Vermilion State Park, or whatever we end up calling this, that a lot of those folks will be able to have that cultural experience and add to the depth of their overall knowledge about the area and the history of Minnesota.

It's a lot about the lake. It's a lot about the water. It's a lot about getting people near, on, and close to that water. We're going to be looking at some Boundary Waters-type facilities where folks can camp off of the lake in a secluded area but have that kind of an experience. The Commissioner is very interested in a "Youth Skills Camp "where we would work with probably a non-profit and develop some kind a youth camp that would allow young folks to come up and to develop some of those skills that frankly we learned a long time ago and we take maybe for granted. But a lot of folks don't know how to put up a tent or start a fire or how to canoe or certain safety kinds of issues. So we're excited about that.

We also have some economic development opportunities. We, as you can see, I think it's on page 9 of your handout, we are proposing that we look at in this part of the park talk with the private sector about the possibility of a marina. I don't know that is a bad thing to be talking about at this point. We will certainly get some feedback from the resort owners and the other marina folks. I'm proposing that that be put out for a private bid if there apparently is the need to have that kind of a facility. But it enables yet even more activities to occur there and that we could support. John Edmond, who's with Hospitality Minnesota back here, has encouraged all of us in the service industry, the tourism industry, to collaborate, to work together and this is what we want to have some meaningful dialogue with the other resort owners and service providers up in that part of the world.

So, I'll be available afterwards, but I want to underscore a great opportunity for us and our customers. We're excited about a new generation of park that may have some things in it that we haven't been able to do in the past and it's just a very good day for those of us in DNR.

Governor Tim Pawlenty:

Thank you Courtland.

Senator Gen Olson:

Senator Gen Olson. Was a member of the Governor's Conservation Legacy Council and also a Senate Environment and Natural Resources Committee member. In both of those venues we have discussed with some concern as well as opportunity the reality that many of the large landholdings that are privately held are being divided up and because of that limiting the potential for both management of some of the resources that are on them as well as the accessibility to the public that has been the case in many of these situations. So I want to commend the Commissioner and to thank him for this initiative in making this opportunity possible and I do hope we can go forward. As a member of the Sesquicentennial Commission I can't think of a better gift to the people of Minnesota today and through the future generations than the gift of this premier parcel of land as a premier state park in our system. So it would be an exciting year next year in our 150th year of statehood to be able to make this gift to the people of Minnesota. Thank you.

Governor Tim Pawlenty:

This gives us a chance to do permanent good. This is an initiative that if it goes forward, when it goes forward, we'll have, I think, one of the most beautiful state parks in the country and it will be there in perpetuity and it will do permanent good for our state and for our people. So we're very excited about this and we look forward to working with the legislature to get it finalized. And with that we'll be happy to take your questions.

[unintelligible question from audience]

Well, I'll ask for just a little bit of indulgence here because we'll be negotiating with US Steel about the price and so we don't want to peg a price today. Tens of millions.

[unintelligible question]

Well, I was in junior high when the last one was created so I didn't follow it that closely, but in terms of this one I would be astonished if we had difficulty getting this through the legislature. I think this will be something that policy makers on both sides of the aisle will embrace, I hope enthusiastically. So I would just suggest to you that this will be a positive, bipartisan, wonderful initiative for the state and I would be astonished if the legislature didn't embrace it, I'm sure they will.

We've had some preliminary discussions with key legislators including those from the area. They've had a very positive reaction. Because rumors were starting to circulate around we wanted to get the announcement out so it just didn't surprise people. But Commissioner Holsten is going to go to the area on Friday to meet with local officials and stakeholders just to begin the discussion. I'm going to be there personally in the next few weeks to follow on with that.

We want to emphasize that any reference to youth camps or marinas are just concepts. This is going to be an exhaustive process of making sure that we have stakeholder input, local official input, and the like. But I can tell you I personally have been around and all over this area on numerous occasions and it is one of the most beautiful parcels of land, undeveloped land, left in the state. It's really spectacular.

[unintelligible question]

Well, I can't speak for the whole 30 years. I will say, you know, Minnesota has done a good job overall with respect public lands. I think with the exception of Alaska and one other state we have more public lands gross, not per capita, but gross than almost every other state in the country. You know some of that's federal, some of that's county, some of it's state, so we're doing reasonably well, but I can't account for the 30 year gap. Maybe Commissioner Holsten you've studied the history a little more.

Commissioner Holsten:

Between that and Courtland Nelson, Parks Director, we can get in to some of that. But there have been other state park opportunities. Glendalough State Park was brought in, but that was basically a turnkey operation where it was in an operational state. It was a privately owned game farm type corporate retreat center. So we took over the ownership of that in the early ‘90s. But in terms of seeking out, identifying a parcel of significant natural resources, amenities that can achieve what our local citizens want to have access to, those significant resources, this has been the first one that we've gone after. There was that time back in the ‘90s, previous governor went after a battleship, but that didn't happen.

Governor Tim Pawlenty:

There have been some, we're careful to say in the press release, "no major state parks. "The one that Mark described was a privately held preserve and they just turned it over to us basically, but it's been a long time, I think overdue. But one thing I really like about this, and John Edmond is going to get mad for me saying this, but we're seeing a contraction of the mom and pop, you know, small resort industry, sadly, which previously when I was growing up that was one of the main affordable family vacations you could have in Minnesota and in many cases they were reasonably priced. And as that opportunity unfortunately is shrinking, I think it's wise to look for ways for Minnesotans to have access to a lakeshore vacation or camping site like this or campgrounds and this will do that. Again those two parks combined will be 10 miles of lakeshore, some of the best lakeshore in the state.

[unintelligible question]

I'll have Courtland answer that, but if things were to go well, you know, we could potentially have the funding in place early part of next session and then the development process will unfold after that. Courtland can talk about how long that might take, but once the state actually gets ownership of it, you could envision a scenario where people could have interim access to it even though it's undeveloped or development's in process.

Courland, do you want to talk just generally about the timeframe?

Courtland Nelson:

Yeah, the first phase would be resource assessment and seeing what's there, if there's any issues that we have to take care of on the land. The second would be a very intense planning effort where water, sewer, power, roads, any facilities that would be on there, trail connections, of course, this is a centerpiece of lots of trail activities, and that would take about a year and then about a year for construction. So if you were to think in a three-year period, there would be some ribbon cutting sometime in that third year. I don't know that we'd have all the major buildings completed or there may be some other issues that we have to address, but a three-year period would be the target.

[unintelligible question]

I would anticipate that we would have lots of discussions about those types of issues. The snowmobiling trail does go through the park and we would assume that would continue. We do now have deer hunts in 33 of our parks, but that's primarily to control the size of the herd. It's at special use request. There will also be, I think very much to your question, those discussions about if part of what we're doing is to protect the lake then what's fair, what's reasonable? It is a big body of water down at that area of the lake. But I'm guessing there will be lots of issues surrounding those.

[unintelligible question]

I don't know that I would say contentious. I think there will be some robust discussions. I would not think that they will be as contentious as maybe some other things in the past.

[unintelligible question]

Well, I think there are two or three issues that are real fun to talk about with this. One is the technology and there's lots of ways of getting information to people. We want to do that in the most efficient way possible. For instance, at a visitor's center, if we were to have an information kiosk that was hotwired and rather than queuing up and waiting to speak to one of our folks about where trails are or what the fees are, to be able to go over and punch in the information and get a printout and you're taken care of. There's all of the healthy discussions that are going on right now in my profession about Wi-Fi and what kind of access we should have for park visitors. I would think there would be a little bit of that.

The second issue is really the new visitors that we would want to come to the park, those inner city folks that maybe have no background, no experience. How do we get them? How do we talk to them? If a brochure appeals to one type of group, what appeals to another type of group in terms of communications, getting the word to them? What kind of facilities do they like? We're having discussions as we speak about what kind of group site should be in place.

I think the third thing is the access to the lake and the different types of camping experiences that go around that. We traditionally have had individual campsites and some group campsites at a fairly undeveloped level. We won't be doing resorts; we won't be doing lodges. But below that, what are the types of amenities and facilities that we would need to develop in order to have new users come.
[unintelligible question]

Not on the part of DNR, I don't know what US Steel has done on their end. Do you know Commissioner?

[unintelligible question]

Potentially, sure.

[unintelligible question]

Don't know the answer to that question. They each have their own attractions. At the beginning, the great opportunity with having Soudan there is we have a maintenance area, we have staff, we have a gathering place where we can work out of that complex. As we move into greater detail each side will develop their own personality. We haven't spent much time talking about the name or the location. We certainly don't want Soudan to diminish in its stature as a park, on the other hand this is a great opportunity to increase the numbers who visit Soudan, which is a part of this opportunity.

[unintelligible question]

Governor Tim Pawlenty:

Our financial picture in Minnesota is actually quite positive now. We have, for the current biennium that just ended, 06-07, we ended with a positive balance. For the 08-09 biennium we've got a half a billion dollars of cash sitting on the bottom line. For the 10-11 biennium we've got a projected over billion dollar positive balance. So we've got some money and this is a good use for it and for parks overall.

One other thing I meant to mention and I was remiss in not mentioning, is the economic impact of the tourism and the magnetic effect of this park on the local area. Without speaking for USX, I think they had planned to put maybe 100, approximately 150, private lots on the lake portion of this and that would be about the extent of the development. Is that about right Courtland, 150? And I would just go so far as to say that a number of those would be only seasonally occupied. And so now you will have, instead of, from a local economic development standpoint, a few hundred people having homes there seasonally, to thousands and probably tens of thousands of people coming as part of the state park experience. So we hope that will be viewed positively in terms of impact to the local economy. OK?

[unintelligible question]

Let's say that Commissioner Holsten has a conflict of interest on this because he has a parcel on Lake Vermilion. We'll just go with that right now. He spends a lot of time on Lake Vermilion, I've spent a lot of time on Lake Vermilion. He shared with me, I knew about this USX development parcel, but he came to me and said, "I've got an idea and a suggestion,"and I couldn't be more enthusiastic or positive about it. And so I think it's a function of Commissioner Holsten's familiarity with it and saw the opportunity and we seized it.

[unintelligible comment]

I think that's a fair comment and Mark can speak to it more directly. But this USX idea, there has been rumors in and around Lake Vermilion about USX's willingness to move this parcel over the last few years. And Mark can share more about how he came up with that.

Commissioner Holsten:

It's been a little bit of both. The parks system is required to do an updated plan every several years. In 2002 this was identified internally within Parks as an opportunity. Obviously through the early or the mid-2000s we were dealing with a much different economic situation than we are today here in Minnesota. The pressures that we saw as United States Steel was going through that process of – basically this slide here, which demonstrates, and it's hard to pick up and you might want to come up and take a closer look at it, but it is one of their original design concepts for the platting of that land. And so what you have is 150 some lots spread throughout that five-mile frontage on the lake and off the lake. It's about 75 some lake lots, 75 off in that ballpark. So we had identified that parcel as an opportunity back in 2002 at state park level. The opportunity as they were moving through their county, plat, and permit process, we just approached them before they got to the final stage.

Governor Tim Pawlenty:

Anything else on the park? Any other questions on other topics? Can we do this though, can we just take two minutes and let our guests split in case they don't want to stand there on whatever your question is?

OK.

[unintelligible question]

I spent some time working on that last night in fact. You may be aware that both federal law under the FMLA or Family Medical Leave Act and state equivalent in Chapter 181, provides that employers are required to give leave for family members under certain circumstances like illness, death of a family member and the like. And so we are going to be supporting a proposition to amend the state version of that to allow for time off as it relates to certain military events. And that woman who I think you heard about or saw me interact with was really quite distressed, but the situation that we want to avoid in the future, it's too late for her, she doesn't want her job back, I was willing to call her employer to try to get it back. But we're going to look into and advance a proposal to try to amend the Chapter 181 or what's loosely called the Family Medical Leave Act to accomplish that goal.

[unintelligible question]

We can't amend it in the federal - we don't really, to affect Minnesota, we don't need to Mary because the way it works is they have a standard that we're allowed to go above. So they haven't preempted the area. We can enhance the federal law on our own and we've done that in a number of other areas as well.

[unintelligible question]

Well, Tom I try not to use our government time to talk about political matters, but obviously Senator McCain's campaign has not gone as well as he'd planned or hoped or I planned or hoped as well.

[unintelligible comment]

I think, Eric, I'm leaving for that event on Friday morning so I don't know if I'll see you between now and then but...

[unintelligible comment]

We do, yeah it's all lined up. No, I do, but the NGA won't allow me to reference it until the final day of the NGA Conference because they want to allow, they don't want to overlap what Governor Napolitano has done and she's technically the chair until the last day of the conference. But it's all teed up. It's ready to go.

[unintelligible comment]

Well, I think it's an exciting opportunity for the State of Minnesota to share some of our ideas and practices and try to spread them across the nation. We've had great success in a number of fronts, and one of those we're going to be featuring as the Chair's Initiative for the Year, and we'll also benefit hopefully from other states' experiences in that regard. But as importantly, the NGA's a pretty powerful voice when it comes to federal law changes that affect the state. So as an example, National Guard policy issues are a huge issue right now and what the federal government's doing in terms of funding, in terms of policy. I spent a number of hours today talking to the Secretary of the Armory over in Wisconsin about some policy changes we need, and if we can get the National Governor's Association to stand behind policy changes, it's a very powerful group. So it's an opportunity to leverage the voices of other states, other governors, to advance federal policy and law changes as well. And there are many examples, whether it's National Guard, Medicaid, Medicare, SCHIP funding, transportation funding. By the way, for all the lectures we get from the federal government on transportation funding, they're in deficit in their transportation fund. So the next time they come and share they perspective we may want to remind them of that. We won't name names, but... So there's a whole array of issues where we are very critical partners with the federal government and the NGA is kind of the focal part for that discussion with them.

OK, thanks.