Work going slow at new state park

Published 9:22 am Monday, August 26, 2013

SOUDAN — With its thick forest of towering pines, sweeping views from overlooks and alluring islands, Lake Vermilion State Park has all the ingredients of an appealing getaway destination. What’s lacking are visitors.

Five years after state leaders pitched the public on an “up-north experience” open to all, the newest Minnesota state park is gradually taking shape. If all goes as planned, campers could be welcomed in a year or so from now. But that’s a big if.

It’s been a slow-go since 2008, when Minnesota lawmakers agreed to buy Iron Range land owned by U.S. Steel Corp. to keep it from being sold piecemeal for pricey vacation retreats. There was apprehension at first among locals who worried it would erode the tax base, concerns that were addressed by special state allowances. Now neighbors are itching for the state park to fully open.

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“Another $20 million isn’t going to show up on the doorstep overnight, but people are anxious to see the development,” said Breitung Township Supervisor Tim Tomsich, who had input on the Department of Natural Resources’ master plan for the park a few years ago.

As park manager Jim Essig rumbled his four-wheel drive vehicle along a narrow path in the heart of the park’s 3,000 acres, he admitted his own anxiousness for hikers and campers to explore the rustic beauty. But he doesn’t want to rush things.

“This is the first new state park developed in over 30 years,” Essig said. “We’re going to make sure we do it right.”

That means having geologists, archaeologists and biologists take inventory of sensitive areas and native species to prevent doing irreparable damage. Planners intend to erect a field of solar panels for electricity to power park buildings and campsite hookups. They will turn gravel and other aggregate from a corner of the park into asphalt for access roads, trails and parking lots. They’re also sorting out how to make Vermilion a next-generation park with emerging technologies and Internet connectivity attractive to younger visitors without offending purists.

Some $30 million has been consumed by the land acquisition, the picnic area and boat docks that went in this summer and the main roadway coming this fall. A welcome center and waterfront visitors lodge are on tap when more financing comes through. The park might not reach its full potential for another six or eight years, officials say.

The legislative campaign for park dollars could be tough. A preliminary DNR request for $25 million for construction of campsites, sanitation buildings, cabins, an adventure area and other amenities faces stiff competition from a pool of $3 billion in public works requests by other state agencies and local governments for everything from prison upgrades to zoo exhibits.

And a backlog of preservation needs at the state’s other 75 parks and recreation areas are sure to inspire parochial calls from legislators to fund repairs in their areas, too.