Joe Friedrichs

Variety of concerns about Lutsen Mountains expansion shared during public forum

Officials from Superior National Forest hosted a virtual open house Nov. 16 that could be one of the final public forums as the federal agency navigates a decision on whether or not to allow the Lutsen Mountains Ski Area to expand operations onto nearly 500 acres of public land.

The virtual open house, the second such event in just over a month, included information about the proposed project to date, followed by a lengthy question and answer period. Tofte District Ranger Ellen Bogardus-Szymaniak led the meeting for the Forest Service. She reminded attendees that although the virtual open house allowed participants a platform to ask questions, official comments on the project must be submitted in writing. Verbal comments provided at the open house are not considered part of the official record, the Tofte Ranger explained.

Lutsen Mountains first applied for a special use permit that would allow the resort to expand its existing ski hill operations onto Superior National Forest land in December 2017. In September, the Forest Service issued its draft environmental impact statement on the proposed expansion.

During the two-and-a-half-hour virtual meeting Tuesday night, a number of concerns were shared by community members and others regarding the proposed expansion of the ski hill. The concerns ranged from how much water the ski hill would need to take from Lake Superior via a pipeline in order to make snow for the resort to the lack for workforce housing in Cook County should the ski hill expand and therefore need to hire more employees.

Ash Smith is a contractor working with the Forest Service on the project. She addressed some of the concerns and questions specific to housing during Tuesday’s meeting. The ski hill’s expansion proposal does not specifically address where any new employees could or would live, Smith said.

In a recent WTIP interview, Lutsen Mountains Operations and Marketing Director Jim Vick said the ski resort is planning to work with others in the community to address whatever housing needs would be required should the expansion move forward.

Another topic discussed Tuesday evening was the Forest Service’s engagement with three Chippewa bands that reside on ceded territory in northeastern Minnesota. Bogardus-Szymaniak said dialogue with the bands is an important part of the decision making process.

“We’re talking with them much more than the general public,” she said. We’re consulting with them. We’re working with them.”

Bogardus-Szymaniak said all of the questions raised in submitted comments – ranging from climate change to increased traffic on Highway 61 – will be considered by the Forest Service before a decision is made on the proposed expansion.

The official public comment period on the proposed expansion is open until Thursday, Dec. 9. The Tofte District Ranger said it’s challenging to know exactly when a decision would be made about the proposed expansion of Lutsen Mountains.

“I would anticipate late spring 2022, or into the summer of 2022,” she said. “But again, it’s fluid. It all depends on the number of comments and how that can all be pulled together.”

The audio below includes more information from Tuesday’s virtual public meeting.