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Lake Vermilion state park deal finalized

An aerial view of Lake Vermilion. (Photo courtesy of Minnesota Department of Natural Resources)

ST. PAUL -- Don't pitch your tent just yet at Lake Vermilion State Park, and don't even think about driving that motor home 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 U.S. Steel Vice President John Goodish, 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 money 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 American Indian 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.

Because lake lots and existing homes costs so much, fewer Minnesotans can afford the "up north" lakeside experience, Pawlenty said. At the new 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.

State land vs.

private home lots

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 is 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.

The park at a glance

# Amount of land purchased for the park: 3,000 acres

# Approximate mileage from Twin Cities: 220 miles

# Estimated annual visitor spending in Northeast Region (based on 600,000 annual visitors in 2007 dollars): $18,230,000

# Years U.S. Steel has owned the property (purchased in 1882):


# Age of oldest rocks at the park: 2.7 billion years

# Height above sea level of Lander Mattson Peak, the highest point: 1,589 feet

# Elevation of Lake Vermilion (at Vermilion Dam): 1,360 feet

# Total number of Minnesota state parks (including Vermilion State Park): 67