Lutsen Mountains ski area. Photo by Jaye White
Jaye White

Lutsen Mountains responds to some ski hill expansion concerns

The U.S. Forest Service extension of its comment period on the proposed expansion of Lutsen Mountains onto adjacent federal land has garnered quite a bit of attention and raised questions on the future of the ski hill. WTIP reached out to Lutsen Mountains for an update on its plans.

WTIP’s Rhonda Silence spoke with Jim Vick, operations and marketing director of Lutsen Mountains, asking him to explain what the ski resort is seeking from the Forest Service. Vick told WTIP that Lutsen Mountains has requested a special use permit to “construct recreational ski trails and support infrastructure” on approximately 500 acres of federal land.

Vick acknowledged that the request is unusual here in the Midwest, but noted that it is common at western ski resorts. He also said local bike trails, snowmobile trails, and cross country ski trails all have special use permits to use federal lands.

Asked how long this has been in the planning stages, Vick said Lutsen Mountains started working on its Master Development Plan back in 2014. That was presented to the U.S. Forest Service in 2017, which researched the proposal and initiated a scoping period, gathering public feedback on what should be considered before a special use permit was granted. The Lutsen Mountains request and public comments were reviewed and compiled into the draft environmental impact statement (EIS), which is now available for public comment until December 8.

When Lutsen Mountains came to the Cook County Board of Commissioners with information on the proposed expansion in 2018, Robert Deschampe was the District 1 county commissioner. He has since been elected chairman of the Grand Portage Band of Lake Superior Chippewa. As a commissioner, Deschampe pointed out that 1854 Treaty rights had to be considered as part of the Forest Service’s review. Vick said there has been communication with tribal leaders.

Vick said back in 2014, Lutsen Mountain officials met with tribal leaders to inform them of the ski hill’s proposal and to get initial feedback. And, Vick said, when the Forest Service created their scoping document, they identified the 1854 Treaty Rights as an area of concern. He said as they should, the Forest Service is working with the three Chippewa tribes associated with the 1854 Treaty—Bois Forte, Fond du Lac, and Grand Portage.

Vick added that there have been some comments characterizing Lutsen Mountains as “big business” trying to ignore legitimate issues such as treaty rights. “But it’s not really the case,” he said, “You know, we’re a family-run business. We consider ourselves to be integral into this local community. And that includes those tribal rights. We think that there are opportunities for the tribes in this proposal, while still respecting the rights of that treaty. And it’s the task of the Forest Service to work through those.”

WTIP asked Vick for his thoughts on environmental concerns raised in the comments, such as erosion and impact to the Poplar River; about fragmentation of old-growth white cedar and maples; about changes to the view of mountains and more.
Vick said the environmental impact statement addresses these topics and he commended Forest Service staff for their thorough presentation at October’s public meeting.

Regarding the concerns about the Poplar River, Vick said the Forest Service has deemed the impact to the river “negligible.” According to Vick, less than an acre of the proposed expansion is inside the Poplar River watershed.

Regarding concerns about fragmentation of old-growth white cedar and maples, Vick said that was considered in Lutsen Mountain’s original plan. He said the ski hill’s consultant designed runs in “pods” with some “legacy patches of undisturbed forest in between.” He said there are additional alternatives and recommendations about mitigation in the Forest Service EIS. Vick added, “While there may be an impact to individual trees, individual species out there are not likely to result in the loss of viability of the forest.”

Vick reiterated, “We feel that the EIS demonstrates that by using best practices and applying these mitigation measures, these and other environmental concerns are really being addressed.”

WTIP asked Vick about comments received that are outside the scope of the Forest Service EIS but are still of concern to some community members–lack of workers and housing, infrastructure concerns such as the need for a new electric substation. Vick acknowledged those community concerns, which he said are shared by Lutsen Mountains. He said housing is probably the number one issue in Cook County at this time. He said he was encouraged by the county’s formation of an HRA.

Vick said he believes the Lutsen Mountains expansion “strengthens the winter job market, which will help balance our seasonal economy. You know, even if we have housing, if people are unemployed for four months or six months of the year, it’s hard to pay that rent. So we need the winter to balance the summer, which is part of what we’re looking at.”

Vick said concerns about the need for a new substation—and the possibility of increased electric rates—are premature. He said he appreciates Arrowhead Cooperative’s forward-thinking regarding future needs, but said Lutsen Mountains is still in the concept stage. He said the project, if approved, would take place in stages and could take decades to complete. He said in that time, there could be additional demand for electricity from other new businesses or homes, so the infrastructure may be needed anyway. He said it would be a community asset.

Lutsen Mountains is one of Arrowhead Cooperative’s largest customers, said Vick, adding that the company will continue to pay its fair share of electric demand.

Another concern that has been raised regarding the ski hill expansion is climate change. WTIP asked Vick if Lutsen Mountains has a plan for years with less snow. He replied that this is a concern for the ski industry as a whole. Vick said leaders in the industry are looking at technologies and advocating for change. He added that it is not as much concern in our northern latitude.

And, he said the entire industry already relies on snowmaking equipment, which has greatly improved over the years. He said Lutsen has better equipment than in years past, so they are able to make snow more efficiently with less water and less power. He said the ski hill stockpiles snow and has been able to extend the skiing season that way.

WTIP asked Vick why Lutsen Mountains must, as the Cook County Chamber has stated, “expand or die.” Vick replied that the ski area has served the community really well as a family-run resort for more than 70 years. But, he added there are constraints on the ski terrain that is owned by Lutsen Mountains. He said this expansion would help Lutsen Mountains compete with the mega-resorts out west. He said those resorts have set the bar for what Lutsen Mountains needs to deliver. “And while we will never be that big, new lifts, new snowmaking, the best grooming, all of those become expectations of our guests. And to afford them, we need to build out our skier base,” said Vick.

Under the current format of the ski hill, Lutsen Mountains is putting capacity limits on its peak days. Vick said to be able to make the improvements skiers expect, a “bigger pool of skiers” is needed.

WTIP noted that there have been some speculations that Lutsen Mountains wants to gain approval for the expansion to enable the company to sell the resort. Vick said he was happy to answer that question as there is nothing factual behind it. “This is a family run company,” he said. “It always has been two families–the Nelson family and then the Skinner and Rider family.”

Vick also said it has been unfortunate that this expansion proposal has been seen as “a corporate land grab of public property for personal gain.”

He said the ski industry is a labor-intensive, capital-intensive, seasonal and weather-dependent business. He said there are much easier ways to make money. “And as a result, we find that most ski resorts around the country are really driven by folks who have passion for it,” said Vick.

“Our mission is to keep people active in the winter, to keep kids off their electronics, to engage in outdoor sports, to keep families connected through an activity that all ages can enjoy, and to introduce visitors to a spectacular place that we get to call home,” said Vick.

For more information on the Forest Service environmental impact study on the special use permit request from Lutsen Mountains, visit the project website. Comments on the project can also be submitted there. The comment period deadline is now December 9.

WTIP’s Rhonda Silence spoke to Lutsen Mountains Operations and Marketing Director Jim Vick about the various special use permit alternatives, environmental impacts, and more. Listen to their conversation below.