In characteristic understatement, Minnesota actually has about 12,000 lakes -- not the 10,000 listed on our license plates. But when asked, many Minnesotans are less reserved about which lake most evokes the postcard image of the rugged beauty of Lake Country. Lake Vermilion, located just a bit south of northern Minnesota's Superior National Forest and Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, is usually close to the top of the list.

Thanks to dogged effort by Gov. Tim Pawlenty -- including a personal appeal to top officials of U.S. Steel, which owns the land -- the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources and many other organizations and individuals, Lake Vermilion will soon be the site of the first new state park in more than 30 years. It will abut the Soudan Underground Mine State Park, and together the two will offer more than 10 miles of undeveloped shoreline.

At 3,000 acres, Lake Vermilion State Park will be the system's fifth-largest and, according to DNR Commissioner Mark Holsten, the "crown jewel" of Minnesota's already spectacular state park system.

Pawlenty agrees. "This parcel, in particular, is a very rare and important opportunity to preserve that iconic experience, that affordable access, and to do permanent good in a way that is unique," the governor said in an interview, referring to an affordable and accessible "up north" experience for average Minnesotans.

The permanent value the project will bring to the state is clear, but bringing the project home wasn't easy. U.S. Steel repeatedly rejected state efforts to buy the land. At one point it appeared the acreage would be divvied up for a private project that initially was slated for individual residential lots. But instead, a lot of Minnesotans -- around 500,000 a year, according to DNR estimates -- will be able to enjoy the park.

Pawlenty isn't the only office holder who deserves credit. The Legislature already appropriated up to $20 million in bonding authority to buy the land, which will now cost about $18 million. The bonding authority did stipulate a cap of 12 percent over appraised value, so the bill may have to be amended. But because it passed on a bipartisan basis -- a relative rarity in these politically polarized times -- it shouldn't be a hurdle to getting the deal done.

Lake Vermilion State Park is just the latest example of office holders responding to what voters value. Just days after the state park announcement, Ramsey County indicated it would try to acquire about 60 acres of the former Twin Cities Army Ammunition Plant in Arden Hills to develop a regional trail.

Last November voters sent the message about the importance of Minnesota's natural resources by giving the biggest election-day margin of victory not to an individual, but for an ideal, with the overwhelming passage of the Legacy Amendment, which will funnel the majority of its funds to the outdoors.

All these efforts are emblematic of the ethos that built this state's unique civic infrastructure, thanks to bipartisan and nonpartisan long-range thinking and investment for this and future generations.

Indeed, now it's this generation's turn to leave a legacy. Lake Vermilion State Park provides a blueprint on how to do it. Hopefully the project will set the tone for the upcoming legislative session, in which the governor and Legislature will need to rekindle the spirit that didn't let an important opportunity slip away in northern Minnesota.