DULUTH – The U.S. Forest Service is collecting public input on Lutsen Mountains’ plans to roughly double its North Shore ski area overlooking Lake Superior.
The federal agency recently gave official notice of plans to conduct an environmental impact study to determine whether to grant Lutsen a special-use permit to build on 495 acres of public land. The expansion, a longtime goal of the family-owned business, would include seven chairlifts, new ski runs, two guest service buildings, a mountaintop chalet and more parking.
Like tourist-driven businesses across the state, Lutsen Mountains is taking a financial hit from the COVID-19 pandemic, but owner Charles Skinner said that won’t affect his efforts to expand, which he called “a plan for the next generation” of the ski area.
“We’re looking long-term,” Skinner said. “We feel we’ve utilized our existing land — from the standpoint of improvements that are meaningful to skiers — fully.”
Lutsen Mountains isn’t expecting any revenue for the month of April, and it shut down in the middle of spring break season because of the coronavirus. Skinner said it’s too early to tell what the financial implications of the pandemic will be. The health of his business is dependent on the winter, but uncertainty looms over the summer’s regular flow of weddings.
Lutsen Mountains has seen steady growth since Skinner’s family bought the ski area from founder George Nelson in 1980. Over the years, they’ve invested $46 million in capital improvements. The planned expansion, which is expected to take 15 to 30 years, would cost $56 million.
The Forest Service is accepting comments online and by mail until May 28 to inform its draft of the study, which will examine potential economic, environmental and other impacts of the project. No open house meeting will be held because of the pandemic.
An official from the agency said the entire decisionmaking process could take a year or two.
More than 100 ski areas across the country are on national forest land. Lutsen is hoping the expansion will help attract double its number of annual visitors and remain an appealing alternative to a ski trip out West.
“I think that the general purpose of the plan is to make sure that our ski area has enough of the variety of terrain and the other facilities that skiers want both now and in the future — that’s important for our ski area to be competitive going forward,” Skinner said.