After years of negotiation, land on Lake Vermilion, one of the most picturesque sites in the state, has become a state park.
With its statuesque pines, pristine waters and rocky shoreline, it won't be just another state park.
The new Lake Vermilion State Park -- Minnesota's first major new park in 30 years -- became a reality Tuesday when the state took possession of 3,000 acres on Lake Vermilion, ending a three-year standoff with former landowner U.S. Steel Corp.
The park, purchased for $18 million following negotiations that stalled several times, is expected to be among the most popular of Minnesota's 67 parks, ranking with iconic gems such as Itasca or Gooseberry, which are visited by tens of thousands of campers, hikers and picnickers each year.
Mel Hintz, president of the Lake Vermilion Sportsmen's Club, a 2,000-member lake association, said visitors will be wowed by the 40,000-acre island-dotted lake, the state's fifth largest.
"We're talking about 5 miles of shoreline on what I consider to be one of the most beautiful lakes in the state,'' he said. "It's a historic day.''
Some limited use of the park could occur this summer, and more opportunities for visitors will be available next year, said Department of Natural Resources Commissioner Mark Holsten. But development of a visitors center, campground, boat landing, dock and trail system, which could cost $30 million, might take six to 10 years, he said, depending on how quickly money becomes available.
Park almost didn't happen
"This is the kind of place that could mesmerize you, it's so grand,'' said Brett Feldman, executive director of the Parks and Trails Council of Minnesota. "It really is a once in a lifetime opportunity -- to find that much pristine shoreline all in one place in a part of the state that Minnesotans really like to travel to.''
The deal almost fell through. Negotiations between the state and U.S. Steel hinged on price. During one stalemate, the company broke off negotiations and said it would develop the land for upscale lake homes.
"There was a time when I was getting pretty discouraged,'' said Holsten. "Now it's a done deal.''
Gov. Tim Pawlenty steadfastly supported the park against some political and public opposition. He and officials from U.S. Steel officials signed documents Tuesday formally transferring the property.
Critics have said the state can't afford another park, and others fear the park won't be developed for lack of funds. Holsten, who may be finishing the last year of a four-year term as DNR commissioner, disagrees.
"I don't believe it will just sit there; I believe it will happen,'' he said. "Other states across the nation are closing or selling off their park assets. We are seeing a surge in users. We had an all-time high last year in camping. Our reservations this year are above that. Our population is going to grow, and affordable access to quality lakeshore will become more difficult for the average citizen.''
The Soudan Underground Mine State Park is adjacent to the new parcel. Together, the two parks will offer 10 miles of shoreline and 3,700 acres of recreational opportunities.
Expectations are high
Trails leading from the Soudan park to the Lake Vermilion park will be built this summer. "You'll be able to take a trail walk into the park and go to one of the vistas," Holsten said.
Officials this summer might also develop a boat-in picnic area at an old cabin site, complete with dock and picnic table.
"By fall and winter, there will be more extensive trail opportunities,'' Holsten said, including cross-country ski and snowmobile trails. "Eventually, we're looking at a major winter recreation destination for snowmobiling, cross-country skiing, winter camping and ice fishing.''
Holsten, who owns a cabin on Lake Vermilion, said he has no doubt that, as years pass and the park is developed, people will say the state got a bargain. About $2 million remains from a $20 million appropriation by the Legislature in 2008 for the land purchase and initial planning and development.
Additional development money could come from a variety of sources, Holsten said, including bonding, the Environmental Trust Fund and that portion of Legacy Amendment dollars set aside for parks.
"The best-case scenario is it would take six years to fully develop,'' he said.
Doug Smith • 612-673-7667