A New Vision for Skiing in Northern Minnesota

In Northern Minnesota, backcountry skiers are fighting to save their most coveted terrain, which is the site of proposed development by a local ski area.

Northern Minnesota is really, really cold. It’s mostly rural, a region famous for the Boundary Waters. Last year, Senator Amy Klobuchar championed rural Minnesota values throughout her presidential campaign. Did we mention it’s cold?

Here’s something you might not have known about Northern Minnesota: It’s home to a budding new scene for backcountry skiing. On the northwestern shore of Lake Superior, a growing community of backcountry skiers are discovering Minnesota’s snowy glades. Unsurprisingly, backcountry skiing is an activity that perfectly suits the lifestyle in a place known for long winters.

“We come from a bush life,” said Elli King-Gallagher, chair of Superior Highlands Backcountry, the local grassroots group for human-powered winter recreation and part of the Winter Wildlands Alliance network. “The backcountry, as a passion, is a very obvious pathway for us.”

Northern Minnesota will never be known for its steeps, but you’d be surprised to find the terrain it offers. Rolling slopes rise above sprawling forests. The snow is cold, light. One of the most popular zones for backcountry skiing is on Moose Mountain, located 90 miles north of Duluth, with views of Lake Superior and the most vertical drop in the state. 

Here’s why we’re telling you about backcountry skiing in Northern Minnesota: The Forest Service has received a proposal to expand a local ski area onto 495 acres of public land with a development that includes seven chairlifts, one surface lift, two new base facilities, a “mountain-top chalet,” two new snowmaking reservoirs, and 1,260 new parking spaces. (For context, the ski area currently has 200 parking spaces, so this development represents a massive expansion onto public lands.) This development is proposed on the region’s best backcountry ski terrain, Moose Mountain and it could crush the backcountry scene that’s blooming. We think there’s a better opportunity for the Forest Service and the public there: a backcountry ski area.

The Forest Service is hosting a very short comment period on this major development project during COVID-19. 

On April 28, the Forest Service published a Notice Of Intent to prepare an Environmental Impact Statement to consider the ski area expansion. In the notice, the agency gave 30 days for the public to provide comments on the ski area proposal. That’s a short amount of time to engage the public for a large and impactful development project like this, let alone the overlap with COVID-19. Hosting any public comment period right now is bottom-line inequitable; people must be able to access government documents, which requires a home computer and high-speed internet, something that Senator Klobuchar has been fighting for in rural Minnesota. The Senator has also joined Democrats in asking the federal government to pause or extend public comment periods during the pandemic. We already reached out to the Forest Service with concerns about hosting a short comment period during the pandemic. So far the agency has ignored us. Public comments are due on May 28th.

Superior Highlands Backcountry has another vision for Moose Mountain: A backcountry ski area. 

Rather than expand a traditional ski area onto public land, Superior Highland Backcountry thinks the Forest Service should diversify the opportunities and options for winter recreation in this region and we agree. Minnesota already has 20 ski areas, and skier visits in the Midwest have been fairly stagnant since the 1980s, when the National Ski Areas Association began keeping track. Those numbers don’t show demand for a ski resort expansion. What’s more, even with an expansion, the ski area proprietor, Lutsen Mountains Ski Resort, can’t change its terrain. The resort claims this expansion is necessary to draw destination skiers, but the expansion wouldn’t alter the ski area’s 800 vertical feet. And 800 vertical feet isn’t going to sway destination visitors. Skiers in Texas are still going to go to the Rockies. 

Instead, we think the Forest Service should look for new ways to entice locals and regional visitors to Northern Minnesota for winter recreation. That’s where backcountry skiing has tons of potential. Backcountry skiing is the fastest-growing segment in the ski industry, and Northern Minnesota is already seeing the benefits. Superior Highlands Backcountry is a relatively small grassroots group, but their supporters and members are active and passionate. 

“Word is spreading,” says King-Gallagher. 

Even if you don’t live in Minnesota, we need your help to spread the word. Let’s share our passion for the backcountry with the land managers at Superior National Forest. Let’s tell them how backcountry skiing created new opportunities for us to use public lands in our regions, how it impacted our local economies, and why it’s an alternative that deserves to be considered. 

We are asking the Forest Service to consider a backcountry ski area as an alternative in the environmental impact statement for the ski resort expansion. (Once again, the National Environmental Policy Act is the law that gives us the opportunity to have a say in decisions like this. Thanks, NEPA!) Superior Highland Backcountry actually tried to submit this idea to the Forest Service, but their ideas were not considered because the ski resort’s proposal was submitted first. 

If the Forest Service doesn’t hear from the public, there’s a pretty good chance they’ll approve the permit for the ski area expansion, just as the resort has requested. But we think this is a cool opportunity to promote a different, progressive vision for Northern Minnesota that promotes skin tracks instead of chairlifts and enhances the natural environment instead of paving over it.