Joe Friedrichs

Lutsen Mountains request stirs talks about special use permits on Superior National Forest

Following the closure of a public comment period Dec. 9, Lutsen Mountains now enters the final stages of a multi-year review process seeking approval of a special use permit from the U.S. Forest Service to allow the expansion of the private corporation onto public land.

Designed to grow what is already the largest ski resort in the Midwest, a special use permit, if approved, could nearly double the amount of skiable terrain at Lutsen Mountains.

Under the request, Lutsen Mountains would like to expand ski runs and operations onto nearly 500 acres of adjacent U.S. Forest Service lands, all of which sits on land in the 1854 Ceded Territory.

Throughout the required review of the special use permit, the Forest Service consulted with the three Chippewa bands associated with the 1854 Treaty—Bois Forte, Fond du Lac and Grand Portage. The bands have publicly expressed concerns about the project, namely that it prohibits their guaranteed right to hunt, fish and gather on these lands.

When it comes to the possible expansion of Lutsen Mountains, Tofte District Ranger Ellen Bogardus-Szymaniak told WTIP that Forest Service staff “have been meeting with the bands and we acknowledge their concerns. This is part of the government-to-government consultation process.”

With that in mind, the ski resort’s request to expand on ceded territory is now bringing other uses of public land and special use permits on ceded territory across Superior National Forest under the spotlight. One example is a collection of special use permits granted to three commercial maple syrup operations on the Tofte District of Superior National Forest.

As of December, the three commercial maple syrup operations on the Tofte District are spread across more than 130 acres of Superior National Forest. The special use permits allow the syrup operations, including those operated by Sawtooth Mountain Maple Syrup and Caribou Cream near Lutsen, to leave their equipment up year round on prime maple stands that technically remain public land. However, the equipment utilized in the process of collecting maple syrup on a commercial scale makes it difficult to navigate the forest terrain. A web-like assortment of plastic tubes hang head-high as they run through the sugarbush.

These vacuum style tubing systems, or similar reverse osmosis models, are much different than the more common means of collecting syrup through a small tap and bucket or bag. More than a visual disruption in the forest, the tubes also impact a band member’s ability to hunt or gather on ceded territory, the tribes have reasoned with the Forest Service, according to the Tofte ranger.

“Access to and protection of sugar maple stands has come up in our conversations with the bands,” Bogardus-Szymaniak said.

While the ski hill is more widely discussed and generates news headlines across the state, the Tofte ranger acknowledged that the Chippewa bands have specifically mentioned maple syrup operations when it comes to their concern for the acreage allowed under special use permits on Superior National Forest.

WTIP reached out to tribal officials from the Grand Portage and Fond du Lac bands to comment for this story. Though they declined to comment on specific issues with special use permits on Superior National Forest, Grand Portage Tribal Chair Bobby Deschampe acknowledged there are ongoing conversations with the Forest Service regarding “many different things.”

Collecting maple syrup in Cook County is done in various ways and requires one of two types of permits. By far the most common is a ‘forest products permit,’ which cost $20. There are many dozens of this type of permit issued every year across Superior National Forest, according to Bogardus-Szymaniak. These modest tap and bag or bucket methods do little to impact one’s ability to navigate the forest and are only up for a short time each spring as the ground and forest begin to thaw.

Commercial operations, on the other hand, need a special use permit in order to operate. A special use permit allows occupancy, use, rights, or privileges of national forest land. If granted to maple syrup collectors on Superior National Forest, they are allowed to keep their tubing and other pieces of equipment up year round.

The Forest Service does charge the commercial syrup manufactures for the special use permits. The agency charges 25 cents per tap. One Cook County syrup operation told WTIP they tap about 4,000 maple trees per year, equating to about $1,000 to have the permit.

The Tofte ranger said the bands have not directly expressed concern about the individuals or businesses collecting maple syrup with a special use permit on Superior National Forest. All three of the commercial maple tapping operations on the Tofte District were put on special use permits in 2016 because they leave their lines up year round, Bogardus-Szymaniak said. Prior to 2016, she added, the operations functioned with a forest products permit and were therefore required to remove all their equipment each spring after tapping was done.

Whenever a special use permit is requested on Superior National Forest by a business or individual there is a process of communication that occurs with the Forest Service and the Chippewa bands, according to Bogardus-Szymaniak. However, historically the process could have unfolded smoother and with better communication, the Tofte ranger acknowledged. The recent addition of a tribal liaison for Superior National Forest should help that process, she added.

Across the nation, special use permits may involve everything from outfitting and guide activities, ski resorts, lodging and marinas, energy transmission and development, commercial filming and more, according to the Forest Service. Each year, the federal agency receives thousands of individual and business applications for authorization for use of public land and reviews each application to determine how the request affects the public’s use of the nation’s many national forests, the Forest Service states.

Aside from the commercial maple syrup operations on Superior National Forest, another example of a special use permit on the Tofte District is Sawbill Canoe Outfitters on the edge of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. Sawbill has been operating on a special use permit since 1957, according to Dan Shirley, a co-owner of the Cook County business.

Sawbill operates with a 20-year permit and during an ownership transition in 2016, in which Shirley and his wife, Clare, took over the business, a new permit was applied for and issued. Sawbill pays a fee to the Forest Service every year as part of the permit structure, Shirley said. The business also pays property taxes to any improvements to the landscape, including for on-site structures.

The taxes are “broken up into multiple classifications as determined by the Cook County assessor,” Shirley said, and are “classified as homesteaded resort, commercial and residential homestead.”

When it comes to ski resorts operating with special use permits, the public is occasionally divided when it comes to things like location and, even more so, expansion. For example, Arizona Snowbowl near Flagstaff is located within the Coconino National Forest and operates under a special use permit issued by the Forest Service. It opened in 1938 and is one of the oldest ski areas in the country, according to public data. In 1992, the Forest Service issued the current owners a 40-year permit within the designated 777-acre boundary.

More recently, officials with Arizona Snowbowl wanted to expand the ski resort. In order to do so, they needed more snow. In 2005, the Forest Service approved a plan to allow treated wastewater to be used for artificial snowmaking when natural winter snowfall fell short, the Arizona Republic reports. During the review of the environmental impact statement, tribes in the area objected to the notion of using recycled sewage and putting wastewater on sacred peaks.
Despite the objections, the Forest Service allowed the project to move forward.

In its record of decision, the Forest Service acknowledged the “landscape is also home to many people, including Native Americans that inhabited the area long before others migrated here and created communities near the mountain, like Flagstaff. People near and far are connected to the Peaks. Native Americans who live in tribal communities as far away as 250 miles consider the Peaks sacred, and a significant and integral part of their culture.”

Now that the public comment period is closed regarding the expansion of Lutsen Mountains, the Forest Service will compile a final environmental impact statement, choose an option and either grant or deny the special use permit to Lutsen Mountains. Regardless of the record of decision, the possible expansion of the ski resort via a special use permit stirred a larger conversation about treaty rights between the Chippewa bands and the Forest Service.

That being the case, irrespective of a project’s size or possible impact to the land, Forest Service officials told WTIP that when they consider granting a special use permit to an individual or a business, the Chippewa bands’ rights under the Treaty of 1854 are discussed during consultation.