Lutsen Mountains, a popular destination for Midwestern skiers for 70 years, is planning an expansion that would roughly double both its size and the number of skiers who use it every year.
The family-owned business along Lake Superior’s North Shore in Cook County has applied for a special-use permit from the U.S. Forest Service that would allow it to add new ski runs, lifts and parking on 550 acres of Forest Service land adjoining the existing ski area.
The planned expansion would nearly double the skiable terrain, from 180 to 320 acres. And Lutsen hopes it also will double the number of “skier visits,” from 100,000 a year to 200,000.
More than 300 U.S. ski areas have closed in the past 30 years as the industry consolidates, said Lutsen co-owner Charles Skinner, whose family bought Lutsen in 1980 from founder George Nelson. Those that remain, primarily in the western United States, are growing larger.
To continue to attract skiers and remain an appealing alternative to a Western ski trip, Lutsen must offer a different, better and larger mix of runs, he said.
“We have a small local population of 5,000 in a county the size of Rhode Island,” Skinner said in an interview last week. “We need to be a compelling destination for people to spend two, three, four days at and not get bored with the skiing they’re experiencing.”
Skinner said Lutsen needs more beginner and advanced runs. It also hopes to use the additional land to offer “glade skiing,” runs that go through forested areas.
Jim Boyd, executive director of the Cook County Chamber of Commerce, said Lutsen Mountains is vital to winter tourism in the county, which depends on such business for more than 80 percent of its economy.
“Without Lutsen Mountains, we would be in a world of hurt,” Boyd said. “We could roll up the sidewalks in the winter if they didn’t exist.
“There are two choices,” Boyd added. “Either it survives and thrives, or it goes out of business. And why would anyone want it to die?”
Last month, Lutsen asked the Cook County Board of Commissioners to pass a resolution of support for its permit application with the Forest Service. The board hasn’t yet had a chance to formally consider the request, said County Administrator Jeff Cadwell.
Some residents are opposed to Lutsen’s proposal, citing noise, traffic and environmental concerns.
“To me, their approach is very alarmist,” said Bill Lane, who spoke against the plan at the recent County Board meeting. “They are trying to pin the Cook County economy to the ability to expand the ski hill. And to me, that’s a bad connection.
“The most important thing is an unadulterated environment that can support the people who live here, and not turn it into a frickin’ Disneyland.”
Lane said snow-making operations already cause noise and light pollution, which would worsen if the ski area expanded.
“If the temperature is right, you hear [snow-making] ski guns everywhere within a couple miles,” he said. If snow-making expands, “that is going to go up and down the Highway 61 corridor. Everyone is going to hear it.”
Lane said he’s even more concerned about the additional water that’s introduced into the soil by snow-making. The area is already seeing “slumps,” he said, which occur when the soil overlaying a clay layer becomes saturated and slides downhill.
The Forest Service permit process takes as long as three years and includes environmental studies and ample opportunities for public comment, Skinner said.