LUTSEN – Minnesota's largest ski resort wants to attract more families with more runs, more amenities and more lifts — an expansion that Lutsen Mountains says will lift Cook County and the North Shore along with it.

"Our success impacts school enrollments and the ability to have a local hospital — we have to stay attractive," said Jim Vick, marketing and operations manager for the mountain. "If we don't do some of those things, then we will start to look like an old, aged ski area. And fewer people will start to come."

But the proposal has provoked a backlash from some locals and others who say the family-owned ski area should do more with less and keep operations off the Superior National Forest, where the expansion has been proposed.

"I'm not interested in letting our public lands bail out not-so-good business decisions at Lutsen Mountains," said Rory Scoles, co-owner of ski shop Lutsen Recreation Inc. and president of Superior Highland Backcountry, which has launched a "Save Moose Mountain" campaign. "When they say they need to expand to survive, it doesn't really match the experiences people have here."

Lutsen's plans are just partway through a yearslong permitting process with the U.S. Forest Service, which will determine the full scope of the expansion. If the proposal is approved, it could be decades before the entire vision is fulfilled and the size of the resort — and the number of visitors it can comfortably handle — doubles. And that's only if more sorely needed housing is built for workers.

Many North Shore businesses are eager for any increase in winter visitors promised by the expansion, or at least want to make sure those numbers don't fall.

"We've seen other ski resorts who have deferred growth and deferred maintenance, and it's hard to catch up when you let it go," said Emily Haussner, general manager of Caribou Highlands Lodge and a lifelong North Shore resident. "We need to recruit new skiers and remain relevant."

The maples of Moose Mountain had already shed their leaves as Vick walked past the gondola and onto the Superior National Forest in early October. The forest borders the roughly 1,000 acres of private land Lutsen Mountains is built on above Hwy. 61.

From the saddle of the hill, looking toward Lake Superior behind the forest below, Vick described how some of the new runs would meet and offer a better beginner experience compared to those that descend steeply toward the Poplar River.

"Those green runs are the biggest component that we're currently missing," he said. "That family market, we feel, is our best niche. But if they're going to come for more than three days, we need more terrain for them to explore."

Visit Cook County and the Lutsen Tofte Tourism Organization say that Lutsen Mountains is the primary driver of winter tourism in the area, and bringing more guests for longer stays means better opportunities for local businesses and their employees.

"For some businesses, it is the difference between staying open or closing in the winter. I would put our store in that category," wrote Jim Joynes, owner of Joynes Department Store and Ben Franklin in Grand Marais.

Lutsen's proposal calls for seven new chairlifts, 324 new acres of cleared and gladed ski terrain, two new base facilities, a chalet atop Moose Mountain, new snow-making reservoirs, more than 1,200 new parking spots and new access roads and maintenance facilities on 495 acres of public land. Last year Lutsen leaders put the total price tag for the project at $56 million.

An alternative proposed by the Forest Service would reduce the expansion to five new chairlifts and 293 acres of added ski terrain by removing proposed expert runs on the north side of Moose Mountain, which is one of the starkest peaks among the Sawtooth Mountains at more than 1,000 feet above Lake Superior.

Any growth would be gradual and responsive to market demands, Vick said.

"Whether it all gets fully built out as drawn up, I would be surprised," he said. "This allows for a planned vision we could grow on."

Backcountry loss

The Star Tribune reviewed the nearly 500 comments submitted to the Forest Service through Friday, which offer a window on community sentiment surrounding one of the area's largest employers and its far-reaching impacts on Cook County and the North Shore.

Though the agency is looking for feedback specifically on its environmental review, many longtime Lutsen skiers, area residents and local property owners have written in with general support for the project's economic impact — or opposition to the expansion's environmental costs.

The comment period for the draft environmental impact statement, which was set to end Monday, has been extended to Dec. 9.

Once the comment period closes, the Forest Service will compile a final environmental impact statement, select a project option — no expansion, Lutsen's proposal or Forest Service-modified plans — and either grant or deny the special use permit the company needs.

Many ski areas in Western states operate in part or entirely on public land through special use permits, but project opponents say Minnesota's rare terrain should be protected.

"This is a very limited resource, there's nothing like Moose Mountain anywhere in Minnesota or in the Midwest," said Scoles with the Superior Highland Backcountry advocacy group, which completed its own study on growing backcountry as opposed to lift-served skiing at Lutsen.

"When we look at the ski industry as a whole, it's all centering around backcountry, because that's the only place there's going to be growth," Scoles said. "They have to stop trying to be Vail; it's just not going to work."

Some in the community are concerned the resort is being improved for a sale to a giant company like Vail, which owns some of the largest ski areas in the West and bought Afton Alps east of the Twin Cities in 2012. Vick said that isn't the case.

"This is a family business trying to compete with those mega resorts," he said. "This is what we need to do to survive as a family resort."

Other opposition has focused on altered viewscapes — especially from popular Oberg Mountain looking toward Moose Mountain — clear-cut forests, increased winter traffic on Hwy. 61 and impacts to the Superior Hiking Trail, which puts hikers where Lutsen wants to put skiers on Moose Mountain.

The nonprofit that manages the trail "views staying in place as a nonviable option," and the trail should be relocated off the ski area "with the cost of the relocation to be covered by Lutsen Mountains," the Superior Hiking Trail Association said in a statement last week.

Vick said the Forest Service's expansion alternative was created in part due to the association's concerns, and Lutsen's proposal included covering costs of a reroute.

"This is a draft review, so the dialogue is still open," he said.

No matter the Forest Service's decision, which could come later next year, supporters and opponents of the expansion agree that if Lutsen Mountains wants to grow, more housing has to be built. A severe lack of housing already contributes to staff shortages in the area and is a major barrier to recruiting year-round and seasonal workers.

"It has to be collaborative, a collection of individuals and businesses building the housing that is needed," said Haussner at Caribou Highlands. "A lot of work is being done about bigger plans for housing."

Brooks Johnson • 218-491-6496