Forest Service sides with tribes, rejects resort expansion

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Matt Doll, Minnesota Environmental Partnership

Tribal and environmental advocates received good news at the end of August when the Superior National Forest rejected a proposal from Lutsen Mountains ski resort to expand its operations into more than 490 acres of the Superior National Forest.

Lutsen Mountains has proposed to use this public land in Cook County to expand its facilities, including new ski hills and buildings. This expansion would require the destruction of thousands of trees and a significant disruption to habitat and water in the surrounding area.

As Minnesota’s Anishinaabe bands have argued, and the Forest Service recognized in its final Environmental Impact Statement for the project, that kind of destruction would affect their rights to hunt, fish, and gather resources in the 1854 treaty territory that covers most of Northeastern Minnesota. Sugar maples in the area that the tribes have harvested for years would be particularly affected, as well as cedar forests that have plants with many traditional uses. 

In addition to the tribes, hundreds of Minnesotans weighed in with comments critical of this proposal, as did environmental groups. MEP was among them – we sent a letter to the Forest Service two years ago criticizing their Draft Environmental Impact Statement. We argued that the DEIS did not adequately address treaty rights, the long-term ecology of the site, or the neighboring Scientific and Natural Area that would be impacted.

MEP broadly supports Northeastern Minnesota’s outdoor recreation industry, and we don’t weigh in on projects like this one lightly. But new construction projects that would destroy wide swaths of critical forest must be considered extremely carefully. Once destroyed, these forests can’t simply be replaced or restored to what they were before.

Thankfully, the final EIS recognized that the Lutsen expansion would be harmful to the surrounding environment, which is already stressed by climate change and other threats to forest, and to the tribes, who have lost access to much of their treaty resources over the years.

Looking ahead

While the Forest Service’s decision is not yet final, it’s likely to stand. We’re currently waiting out a 90-day period in which parties may object to the decision, but it’s rare for one to be overturned.

In the broader scope of the North Shore, this decision represents an uncommon and encouraging victory for tribal resources and environmental justice. Far too often in recent years, governmental agencies that purport to care about tribal rights have approved projects that threaten those rights, like the Line 3 pipeline and the PolyMet mine.

Taken together with other positive steps, like the overturning of PolyMet’s wetlands permit due to the Fond du Lac Band’s water quality protections, we hope the Lutsen decision will herald a positive new trend for tribal sovereignty and a healthy environment in Minnesota.

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